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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.

Last year, Isaiah Crowell rushed for 944 yards on 197 carries.1 That’s an average of 4.79 yards per carry, but of his 944 yards, 370 of them came after he had already rushed for a first down. That’s a whopping 39% of his rushing yards that we could call “special teams yards” that didn’t help move the sticks.

Conversely, T.J. Yeldon rushed 129 times for 463, a 3.59 YPC average. That was not good, of course. And while “special teams yards” are not as valuable as yards gained to help move the chains, getting almost none of them also shows a lack of explosiveness. Yeldon had just 47 special teams yards last year, or 10% of his rushing yards, the fewest ratio in the league (minimum 100 carries).

The table below shows the special teams yards, average yards per carry after removing special teams yards, and percentage of special teams yards gained by each running back.

Running BackRushRush YdYd/CarSp Tm YdsNon-ST Yd/CarSp Tm Yd %
Isaiah Crowell1979444.793702.9139.2%
Mike Gillislee1015765.72153.5737.3%
Jay Ajayi26012704.884413.1934.7%
Jordan Howard25213135.214473.4434%
LeSean McCoy23412675.414273.5933.7%
Devonta Freeman22810824.753563.1832.9%
DeMarco Murray29212834.394142.9832.3%
Ezekiel Elliott32216315.075193.4531.8%
Mark Ingram20510455.13283.531.4%
Bilal Powell1317145.452233.7531.2%
Jeremy Hill2228393.782532.6430.2%
Tevin Coleman1175174.421553.0930%
Latavius Murray1957884.042352.8429.8%
Melvin Gordon2539923.922952.7529.7%
Jacquizz Rodgers1305604.311623.0628.9%
LeGarrette Blount29911613.883302.7828.4%
Thomas Rawls1093493.2992.2928.4%
Rob Kelley1687044.191923.0527.3%
Terrance West1937754.022112.9227.2%
David Johnson29312394.233343.0927%
Jonathan Stewart2188253.782222.7726.9%
Carlos Hyde2179884.552643.3426.7%
Chris Ivory1174403.761132.7925.7%
Lamar Miller268107342673.0124.9%
Christine Michael1485833.941452.9624.9%
Spencer Ware2149224.312273.2524.6%
Ryan Mathews1556604.261613.2224.4%
Matt Forte2188143.731952.8424%
Tim Hightower1335484.121283.1623.4%
Derrick Henry1104904.451133.4323.1%
LeVeon Bell26212664.832863.7422.6%
Alfred Blue1004204.2923.2821.9%
Jerick McKinnon1595393.391102.720.4%
Rashad Jennings1815933.281202.6120.2%
Paul Perkins1124564.07903.2719.7%
Matt Asiata1224023.3792.6519.7%
Devontae Booker1726103.551152.8818.9%
C.J. Anderson1104373.97743.316.9%
Frank Gore26310263.91703.2516.6%
Todd Gurley2788853.181202.7513.6%
Doug Martin1444212.92442.6210.5%
T.J. Yeldon1294633.59473.2210.2%
191.2807.44.22218.83.0827.1%

As always, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

  1. Note: The play-by-play source material I am using has very minor errors, which leads to some numbers being slightly off. Crowell actually had 952 yards on 198 carries. []
  • Also, for anyone wondering about Ty Montgomery, he was at 40% in non-ST yards. 77 rushes, 457 yards, 182 special teams, 3.57 non-ST YPC and 5.94 regular YPC. He had a 61-yard run, along with rushes for 36, 30, 26, and 24.

  • Also remarkable: David Johnson’s line almost perfectly mirrors league average.

    • Having average rate stats over 300 carries, while being the best receiving back in the league and an ok blocker, is pretty valuable.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Don’t know the future of Isaiah Crowell, but I would suggest the elite backs often pick up those first downs, even when the defense is keying on him. The extra yardage is beneficial, but when you need those two yards to move the sticks, that can be a difference-maker in the outcome of a game. When the defense can either bring up another defender and/or anticipate the exact play, that’s when you see the value of a RB.

    • evo34

      The other side of the coin is that picking up a 2-yard first down might be mostly due to blocking, whereas breaking off a 30-yard run might require more raw talent.

      • sacramento gold miners

        Depends on the specific play in question. The great back doesn’t always need strong blocking, and those short gains can be very difficult when everyone knows what is coming. The back who rips off a 30 yard gain with terrific blocking, may lack the capacity to pick up a much shorter important gain later.

  • Richie

    The other thing about kick and punt return yardage, is that there is an initial chunk of yardage that is a “given” on a typical play, that even I could probably gain.

    When a returner fields a kickoff on his own 1-yard line, the first 10-15 yards are usually gimme yards because the defenders haven’t gotten that far down field yet.

  • evo34

    ” 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.”

    The reason we don’t care about a 4 ypr diff. in a returner is that most of it is random or based on team blocking. I haven’t seen evidence that the ability to turn a 10 yard run into a 20 yard run is all luck/context. I wonder what the y2y correl. of what you call “Sp Tm Yd %” is.

  • evo34

    “And while “special teams yards” are not valuable..”

    All yards are valuable. I think you’ve taken the concept a bit too far. Just curious: have you done work to show what size gain on first and 10 is worth more than a 9-yard gain? Obviously, it’s better to gain 9 yards than exactly 10 yards on first and 10, but wondering at what size of gain it becomes equal to a 9-yard gain in terms of WPA. Assuming neutral field position.

    • I was wondering who you were responding to, then I realized it was me! That was a typo in the original post; I have revised the post to mean that they are not as valuable as yards gained to help move the chains.

      As for your point two, I have not. That’s a good Brian Burke question. My hunch would be about 13 yards.

    • Richie

      Why is 9 yards better than 10?

      • evo34

        Because 2nd and 1 is a lot better than 1st and 10, assuming same field position.

  • Joseph Holley

    I’m going to be the contrarian here. All yards are valuable, no matter when you gain them. So, the RB who gets 8 on 2nd & 5 didn’t gain 3 ST yards, he got his team 3 yards closer to the ultimate goal of a TD. The more times an offense has to execute to move down the field, the more likely they are to have trouble scoring. Did you ever hear of a coach emphasizing to his team to get just the 1st down yardage, and not a yard more?? Or do coaches talk about “explosive plays” (or some other wording)?
    NE in 2016 was middle of the pack in yards allowed, but top-5 (iirc) in points allowed–because the opposing offense constantly started further away from the goal line. If I remember correctly, somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 yds PER DRIVE further than the NE offense, which doesn’t need any help. Over the course of a game, that’s another 60-70 yards–for the season, nearly 1000 yards.
    Several factors to consider when looking at these “extra” yards: the aforementioned RB who got 8 yards on 2nd and 5 from the opposing 8 yard line gets a TD–much more valuable than just getting the 5. Obviously, we don’t “notice” the same yards when the line of scrimmage is his own 25, but they still move the team along.
    Once you get past 10 yards, speed plays a factor, as well as how many yards the runner starts away from the goal line; however, the ability to get past the tackle attempt around 10 yards downfield is highly valuable, b/c of the additional yardage that can be gained.
    Think of it this way–10 yards on 1st and 10 is a pretty good run, and moves the chains. 20 yards on 1st and 10 eliminates one first down that needs to be gained. Another aspect: the number of plays required to get into scoring range really matters late in the game, and late in the 1st half.

    • LightsOut85

      I would definitely agree that explosive gains are valuable (after all, they’re correlated to winning) – because as you said, you don’t need to take as many chances-for-bad-plays.

      I think this measure is more about what’s *reliable*. Those explosive gains are good. A single 80 yard run would be very valuable for that drive, but when you look back on a back’s stats it’s going to inflate the value (via YPC) of his rushing yards for a whole game/season. Not to pile on Crowell, but in the BAL game with his 85 yard run, his YPC was 7.4. Without that run, it was 2.8. So that run was super valuable in the context of that one drive, but it obscured his lack of value on his other 17 carries (and perhaps is misleading in terms of his long-term potential to provide “value”).

      • LightsOut85

        I’ve been looking through the individual runs of a handful of guys on the list, and I can definitely see why people aren’t as keen on this measurement though. Guys like Yeldon or Martin may have had their YPC inflated very little by yards past the 1st down, but they also couldn’t manage a single 20yd+ run between them — which is pretty bad, at least IMO (for any back that isn’t billed as the short-yardage, power, specialist).

        I’d have to say I’m mostly in the group that thinks blocking plays the biggest part in shorter gains (/consistency of shorter gains — at least assumed importance when we don’t have access to broken-tackle & yards-after-contact data), and so getting bigger gains IS a big part of a running back’s value. FO’s Adjusted Line Yards counts all gains below 5 yards as towards the OL, as well as 50% of yards between 5 & 10 past the LOS.

        I guess a compromise (include long runs, but not let things like 70+ skew the average) would be to pick some longer distance (sufficient to say a “big run”) and tally how often a back reaches that distances. (Then you could do % of runs reaching that, adjusted average where runs max out at that distance, or perhaps # of those per game (to not punish bell-cows who may not be as efficient)).

        • sacramento gold miners

          Tough to say whether blocking plays a bigger part in either short or longer gains, but first downs will continue to be important in the outcome of a game. Bigger gains are helpful, but some of the RBs with high yards per carry averages just aren’t built for those shorter yardage situations. They’ll rip off a 15 or 30 yard run, but struggle with the third and three situation later on.

      • Joseph Holley

        That is the key to me. If a RB can average between 3.5 and 4.0 on ~90% of his runs, and the other 10% are 10+ yards each, that back is pretty valuable (from the table above, that would be Bell, Gillisee, and Powell). For an “average” back, that would be about 1.5 big runs per game, and the rest medium to short gains.
        However, some backs’ value is that they have 2-3 big runs per game, so the team can live with some shorter gains that don’t move the chains quite as often.
        To Chase–I think changing “valuable” to “reliable” would have been better. Special teams yards are still valuable–Devin Hester (among others) made a career out of it.

        • LightsOut85

          I was curious what the actual numbers for the bottom-90%-of-runs were, so I looked at the top 3 backs here by non-STyds/carry, as well as Crowell (just because he’s been the punching bag, lol). Only Powell and Bell passed the 3.5ypc benchmark (Bell about 4.6, and Powell 4.0). McCoy was close, at 4.3, and Crowell was far behind with 2.5. I think there’d be a pretty strong correlation between NSTY/car and this measurement.

          I also looked at rushes of 10+ per game, and that was interesting because there *were* some of the same top names as listing by NSTY/car, but also guys like David Johnson** and DeMarco Murray (2.1 & 2.0 per game, respectively. McCoy was at 2.3, Ajayi 2.6, and Elliot & Bell both over 3). Crowell didn’t fair too well (at least in relation to the fact that his ranking of 16th (among top 50 in total rushing yards) doesn’t offset his inconsistency in runs) at 1.6. Part of that could be that he only had 12.4 carries per game, but if we order the same 50 by % of carries that went 10+, he still ranks just 16th (13.1%. For comparison, Powell had a similar 1.5 long runs per game (& not many carries), but that was 18.3% of his carries (2nd)).

          **There’s been talk about his low (relative to reputation) YPC, and I think it’s explained by the fact that his below average % of 10+ that were 20+ yards. He still got at least 10 yards past the LOS as often per game as some of the best in the league. (Granted, Bell’s % 10->20 was much lower still and yet he had a great YPC, but I have to imagine that’s a rare occurrence).

  • Deacon Drake

    Another argument for LeVeon Bell’s value… seems a better percentage of his YPC was used to convert. BTW, I know some Brian Mitchell fans who would like to have a word outside…

  • LightsOut85

    I don’t know if it would over-complicate the metric, but I think it would be helpful to adjust for failed 3rd & long runs, somehow. Ex: I was looking at Yeldon’s individual runs and saw his BEST run was only 16 yards, and it was on 3rd & 17. Granted, it’s impressive he still ALMOST converted but given defenses usually allow cushions on a down/distance it’s still a “bad” play, & a bad play ends up giving him 16 non-ST yards in 1 carry.

    However, he’d still rank above average in NSTY/Car (dropping 5 places), and maybe these types of runs aren’t common enough to make a big difference for anyone’s average.

    • True. The more you do this, the closer you get to some advanced metrics like DVOA. Which is not a bad thing or a good thing – just making the observation. Sadly, I don’t really know how repeatable these things are.