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Running back success rate

Grading running backs can be tricky; rushing yards tell much of the story but remain a function of opportunity (itself an indicator of talent). Yards per carry sounds nice but often is more misleading than revealing. Last year at Smartfootball.com I analyzed team rushing games using rush success rate, and I will do the same today. Success rate has been around for awhile – The Hidden Game of Football wrote about it in the late ’80s and Football Outsiders has been tracking it for close to a decade. Everyone has their own unique definition, it seems; here is mine.

C.J. Spiller is a success.

    • I started with every play from scrimmage where a running back was credited with a carry. I then removed all instances of 3rd or 4th down carries where the back needed to gain more than 5 yards for a first down, since the primary goal in these situations usually isn’t to get the first down. However, on the rare occasions where a running back did convert for the first down, those plays were kept in the data set. This has only happened 20 times this season.
    • On 3rd and 4th down, a success is a rush that gains a first down (or touchdown). A failure is every carry that does not result in a first down.
    • On 2nd down, a success is achieved when the player gains at least 50% of the yards needed for the first down. This means that 2nd-and-8 runs are failures unless they pick up 4 yards; on 2nd-and-7, the running back must also gain at least 4 yards. A rush for one yard on 2nd-and-3 is a failure, and so on.
    • On 1st down, a running back is credited with a successful carry if he gains at least 40% of the yards needed; therefore, four yards are required on 1st-and-10 before the running back is given credit. On 1st and goal from the 5, a two-yard gain would be considered a success.

The league average success rate by these rules is 49.8%. The table below lists all running backs with at least 50 carries, along with their number of rushes (which excludes the excluded carries), number of successful runs, and their success rate. The table is sorted by the far right column, which shows how many successes over 50% of their runs the player had. In the event of a tie, the player with more carries was ranked higher.

1C.J. Spillerbuf121369016.638461.8%16
2Willis McGaheeden101657254.399859.4%15.5
3Andre Brownnyg10733855.275169.9%14.5
4Marshawn Lynchsea1224711194.5313554.7%11.5
5Ryan Mathewssdg1015562048554.8%7.5
6Kendall Huntersfo11713675.174360.6%7.5
7Stevan Ridleynwe1222410094.511953.1%7
8Marcel Reecerai12532484.683362.3%6.5
9Adrian Petersonmin1223414466.1812352.6%6
10Fred Jacksonbuf9983863.945556.1%6
11Daniel Thomasmia10843033.614857.1%6
12Shonn Greenenyj122077993.8610952.7%5.5
13Ahmad Bradshawnyg111838304.549753%5.5
14Pierre Thomasnor12894254.785056.2%5.5
15Daryl Richardsonram12774315.64355.8%4.5
16Frank Goresfo121939414.8810051.8%3.5
17Bryce Brownphi12734856.644054.8%3.5
18Arian Fosterhtx1226610443.9213651.1%3
19Justin Forsetthtx12583616.223255.2%3
20Bilal Powellnyj10692683.883753.6%2.5
21Joique Belldet12573265.723154.4%2.5
22Danny Woodheadnwe12532113.982954.7%2.5
23DeMarco Murraydal6964224.45052.1%2
24Alfred Morriswas1222911034.8211650.7%1.5
25BenJarvus Green-Elliscin122258843.9311450.7%1.5
26LeSean McCoyphi101757424.248950.9%1.5
27Reggie Bushmia121647264.438350.6%1
28Mark Ingramnor12973513.624950.5%0.5
29Cedric Bensongnb5712483.493650.7%0.5
30James Starksgnb6692523.653449.3%-0.5
31Chris Johnsonoti122029814.8610049.5%-1
32Michael Bushchi121103843.495449.1%-1
33Maurice Jones-Drewjax6844114.894148.8%-1
34Mikel Leshouredet101575913.767749%-1.5
35Vick Ballardclt121254653.726148.8%-1.5
36Felix Jonesdal12983493.564748%-2
37Peyton Hilliskan9581923.312746.6%-2
38Bernard Piercerav12592474.192745.8%-2.5
39Jamaal Charleskan1222010524.7810748.6%-3
40Donald Brownclt101064103.875047.2%-3
41Jackie Battlesdg12522224.272344.2%-3
42Steven Jacksonram121937673.979348.2%-3.5
43Jonathan Dwyerpit91144804.215346.5%-4
44Ronnie Hillmanden10562274.052341.1%-5
45Ray Ricerav121978594.369347.2%-5.5
46DeAngelo Williamscar121033593.494644.7%-5.5
47Isaac Redmanpit10933423.684043%-6.5
48Jonathan Stewartcar9933363.614043%-6.5
49Ryan Williamscrd5571692.962238.6%-6.5
50Doug Martintam1223411164.7711047%-7
51Trent Richardsoncle122218023.6310346.6%-7.5
52LaRod Stephens-Howlingcrd10903033.373741.1%-8
53Rashad Jenningsjax101002822.824141%-9
54Jacquizz Rodgersatl12672724.062435.8%-9.5
55Michael Turneratl121796733.767944.1%-10.5
56Chris Wellscrd5611462.392032.8%-10.5
57Matt Fortechi111737234.187543.4%-11.5
58Alex Greengnb101073483.254037.4%-13.5
59Darren McFaddenrai81374483.275439.4%-14.5

We can also look at things on the team level:

    • The Falcons have the 2nd worst rushing success rate, which helps explain why they’re the most pass-happy offense in the NFL.
    • Buffalo has an incredible running game but not much else. C.J. Spiller has been outstanding and Fred Jackson has been very good; unfortunately, the Bills have only outrushed their opponents by 105 yards and have allowed 17 rushing touchdowns compared to 9 by the offense.
    • Having Tom Brady helps, but the New England running game has been fantastic this season. Stevan Ridley may not have the most challenging job in the world, but he still should be in the running for employee of the month.
    • Last year (as of November 17th), Maurice Jones-Drew led all running backs in successful runs and had a solid 50% success rate. But on the team level the Jaguars were below average because of the other running backs, namely Deji Karim and his 37% success rate. This year, MJD has a 49% success rate while backup Rashad Jennings is at only 41%.
    • If the Bears are expecting to win with their defense and running game, they can’t rank in the bottom five in rush success rate. Chalk that up to the offensive line, as both Matt Forte (57th in success rate) and Michael Bush (3.5 YPC) have had their struggles.
    • Despite the very real evidence that the Jets running game is anemic — New York ranks 26th in yards per carry and five of the team’s eight rushing touchdowns came in garbage time/blowouts — Shonn Greene, Bilal Powell, and company (but not Tim Tebow) place the Jets 7th in success rate. They are not explosive players by any means, but the Jets lead the NFL on third-and-one conversion rate on rushing plays (12 of 13).

We also can rank teams by their rush success on defense:

    • The 49ers may have fallen slightly from their perch atop the traditional rushing categories, but remain extremely stout against the run. That may have been why Jeff Fisher chose to have Greg Zuerlein kick a 54-yard field goal in overtime rather than try to convert on 4th and 1 against the 49ers.
    • The Patriots are interesting. According to success rate, New England has the worst rush defense in the NFL, but the team ranks in the top 10 in both rushing yards and yards per carry allowed. That might merit further investigating. For what it’s worth, the Patriots also ranked last in rush success when I wrote this article last year. When advanced statistics show New England to be better than traditional metrics, we like to say that that’s why Bill Belichick is a genius. When the tide turns the other way, we question the statistic. Those Super Bowl rings come with perks.
    • Similarly, the Steelers rank in the top 6 in both rushing yards and rushing YPC allowed, but are 31st in rush success rate allowed. It’s worth remembering that the data are not identical — traditional rushing stats include runs by non-running backs and third-and-long carries — but I’m a little surprised to see these results. Of course, that isn’t a bad thing, and might simply mean that the Steelers and Patriots are much worse against the run than we realize..
    • Tampa Bay is currently having the most remarkable turnaround possible with their rush defense — the Bucs still rank 1st in both rushing yards and yards per carry allowed. They also come off as very strong in rush success rate.

  • Richie

    Daniel Thomas 11th? Great. Earlier this week I was asking fellow Dolphins fans why Daniel Thomas keeps getting carries, because it seems like he never makes anything good happen. I guess my perception is wrong (admittedly, I’ve probably only gotten to see about 1/4 of his carries).

  • Richie

    If a RB gains 5 yards on 2nd down and 4, and then loses a fumble to the defense – do you count that as a success or fail?

    • Chase Stuart

      I ignored fumble data for purposes of this study, so it would be a success.

  • Dave

    Success rate is also influenced by down and distance. I’d be curious to see the individual RB table again on 1st and 10 runs only as well as 3rd and 4th and short runs only.

    There is a reason Indy RB’s were often near the top in success rate and its the same reason McGahee is went from 46% and 36th in success rate last season to #2 and 58% in success rate this season. More 3rd and short runs I’m guessing due to an excellent passing game. Same goes for the NE RB’s over the years.

    • Chase Stuart

      Yes, Dave, those are interesting queries. They’re on the to-do list, although maybe not for awhile. But I had similar thoughts.

    • Richie

      I was curious to see Daniel Thomas’ breakdown, so I researched all his runs.

      1st – 45% (average 9.4 to go) – 3.9 ypc (47 carries)
      2nd – 74% (average 7.5 to go) – 3.7 ypc (27 carries)
      3rd – 70% (average 1.9 to go) – 1.9 ypc (13 carries) [plus 3 additional carries with 6+ to go, which he failed]
      4th – 100% (average 1.0 to go) – 9.0 ypc (1 carry)

      • Richie

        Not that you care about Daniel Thomas specifically, but maybe seeing one guy’s breakdown is interesting.

        On 1st and 10, Daniel Thomas averaged 4.3 YPC. He had 20 carries on 1st and 10. 21 times (53%) he failed. 19 times he succeeded (including picking up a first down twice). The 2 first down conversions were each 20-yard runs. Those were the only 2 runs he’s had all year longer than 9 yards.

        On all carries, here is is run distribution:
        20 yards – 2 times
        9 yards – 3 times
        8 yards – 5
        7 yards – 3
        6 yards – 5
        5 yards – 8
        4 yards – 11
        3 yards – 15
        2 yards – 12
        1 yard – 13
        0 yards – 6
        -1 yard – 4
        -4 yards – 1

  • sn0mm1s

    Sort of curious – why 4 yards on 1st down? From Burke’s win calculator 2nd and 6 is actually a worse position than 1st and 10. A RB has to gain 5 yards to be in a better position than they were at 1st and 10 in regards to converting the next 1st down. I understand that running for 5+ yards on 1st down is less likely than running for 4 or less – but couldn’t that be the reason why most teams lean towards the pass instead of the run in the first place? The NFL rushing average for the past 10 years is at an all time high compared to any other period in NFL history but even with that fact teams are passing more and more (of course that could also be an effect of teams passing much more often since defenses are designed to stop the passing game).

    • Richie

      The NFL rushing average for the past 10 years is at an all time high compared to any other period in NFL history but even with that fact teams are passing more and more (of course that could also be an effect of teams passing much more often since defenses are designed to stop the passing game).

      I was not aware of that fact. But I have to believe that it IS an effect of defenses trying to stop the passing game.

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