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How Bad Was Ray Rice in 2013?

Rice just barely averaged his height in 2013

Rice just barely averaged his height in 2013.

The 2013 season was a disaster for Ray Rice, and 2014 isn’t off to a very good start, either. Last season, Rice carried 214 times for just 660 yards and four touchdowns, producing an anemic 3.1 yards per carry average. On November 9th, I asked whether Rice was already washed up; at the time it felt a bit premature, but in retrospect, such a view seems much more reasonable. Averaging so few yards per carry over such a large number of carries is pretty rare. How rare?

As a disclaimer, I’m in the camp that thinks YPC is an overrated statistic. In 2013, Marshawn Lynch, Eddie Lacy, and Frank Gore all averaged around the league average of 4.17 yards per carry, but that doesn’t make them average backs. So consider much of this post to be a bit of trivia and fun with stats, rather than the best way to identify running back productivity. With that disclaimer out of the way, I calculated each player’s “yards above league average” for each season since 1950, which is the product of a player’s number of carries and the difference between his YPC average and the league average YPC rate.

For example, since Rice averaged 3.08 YPC on 214 carries, he gets credited for being 231 yards below average in 2013. By this measure, Rice was the worst running back in the league. He was worse than his teammate Bernard Pierce (who actually had a lower YPC average but on fewer carries, so he finished 197 yards below average), worse than Willis McGahee (-198) or Rashard Mendenhall (-217), and even worse than Trent Richardson (-220). And this wasn’t your typical worst season in the league, either: his 2013 performance ranks as the 15th worst in this metric since 1950: [click to continue…]


Is Ray Rice Already Washed Up?

Rice is averaging just over five feet, nine inches per carry

Rice is averaging just over five feet, nine inches per carry.

In many ways, the post-Ray Lewis Ravens have flown under the radar. The defending Super Bowl champions are just 3-5, thanks mostly to a mediocre offense. But unless you have Ray Rice on your fantasy team, you probably haven’t noticed just how rough a season the star running back is having. Of course, “Ray Rice” is just a euphemism for “Ray Rice, running behind the Ravens offensive line, playing alongside Joe Flacco and the rest of his Baltimore teammates.” Rice is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry on 97 carries, well below the 4.5 YPC career average he produced prior to 2013. Backup running back Bernard Pierce isn’t doing any better, putting up the same average on 85 rush attempts. As a team, Baltimore is averaging just 2.78 yards per rush, making the Ravens one of just six teams since the merger to average fewer than 2.80 yards per carry through nine games.

As you might expect, much of the blame falls on the Baltimore offensive line. In particular, tackles Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie have been terrible, so much so that McKinnie was traded to Miami. Pro Football Focus also gives poor run-blocking grades to Ed Dickson, Dallas Clark (unsurprisingly), and Vonta Leach (very surprisingly). I haven’t watched enough of Baltimore to tell you why the Ravens have struggled so significantly to run the ball, but I can provide some perspective on how poorly Rice’s numbers are.

We don’t have play-by-play data going back to 1960, but we do have game-by-game data back that far. I went back and noted every running back who had a season-to-date yards per carry average below 2.80 following the game where he recorded his 97th carry. The table below shows the 43 players to do so from 1960 to 2012, sorted in reverse chronological order. The last player was former Raven Chester Taylor, and here is how his line reads: In 2010, playing for the Bears at age 31, Taylor had 105 carries for 252 yards, producing a 2.4 yards per carry average, following the game where he received his 97th carry of the year. The rest of the season, he had 7 rushes for 15 yards, a 2.14 YPC average.
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Tony Gonzalez is good at not fumbling

Gonzalez has made 13 Pro Bowls.

Gonzalez has made 13 Pro Bowls.

Do you remember Robert Thomas? He was selected by the Rams with the 31st overall pick in the 2002 draft. He started 30 games at linebacker for the team in three years, grabbed a cup of coffee in Green Bay, and then had three forgettable years with the Raiders during the nadir of the Al Davis era.

In week 16 of the 2006 season, the 7-7 Chiefs traveled to Oakland to face the 2-12 Raiders. Kansas City held a 10-6 lead when they took possession with 11:38 left in the second quarter. Trent Green completed a short pass to the right side of the field to Tony Gonzalez, who was tackled by Thomas. In the process, Thomas jarred the ball loose from Gonzalez, and Kansas City’s second-string tight end, Kris Wilson, pounced on the ball and recovered, keeping possession for the Chiefs. Kansas City eventually won 20-9, and clinched the playoffs by winning the following week against Jacksonville. Oakland finished 2-14 and was rewarded with JaMarcus Russell.

Thomas’ fumble wouldn’t even register as a footnote in the game recap, let alone seven years later. But here’s the thing: from the start of the 2000 season until that play began, Gonzalez had caught 547 passes and fumbled zero times. Since that fumble, Gonzalez has caught 526 receptions… and zero fumbles. Thomas’ forced fumble was the only time since 2000 that Gonzalez has ever let the ball hit the ground.

That crazy stat comes courtesy of Bill Barnwell on this podcast. After hearing about it, I decided to see look up career fumble rates. Excluding the postseason, Gonzalez has 6 career fumbles while recording 1242 receptions, 2 rushes, and one pass attempt. That’s a fumble rate of under half-a-percent per touch! That’s the second best rate of any player to enter the league since 1950, minimum 1,000 touches (defined as every time a player touched the ball).

Who is number one? The guy who can’t stop fumbling in the NFL playoffs. Before presenting the list of the players with the top 100 fumble rates, let me get in a quick disclaimer. Fumble rates, in general, are declining. And the fumble rates are dramatically different on returns relative to running plays, which have different fumble rates than quarterbacks on pass plays, which is way higher than the fumble rates on a reception by a receiver. But hey, if you just want a list of fumbles per touch, ignoring context, check out below:
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Lewis looks to cement his legacy

Lewis looks to cement his legacy.

Being a Super Bowl champion is a pretty nice bullet to place on your Hall of Fame resume. For players like Jerry Rice or Peyton Manning (or say, Steve Largent or Dan Marino), the failure to acquire a ring wouldn’t have prevented their induction; on the other hand, would Lynn Swann or Paul Hornung or a host of quarterbacks have made the HOF without a Super Bowl ring (or two, or three, or four?)

Just winning a Super Bowl guarantees nothing — Charles Haley and his five rings are on the outside looking in, as is Fuzzy Thurston, winner of six NFL titles. The borderline cases are the ones most helped or hurt by that Lombardi Trophy (or lack thereof) on the resume, and that class of players seems to be among the largest growing segment each year. So today, I’m going to take a look at how winning the Super Bowl could impact the legacies of certain Ravens.

Ray Lewis is a first ballot Hall of Famer regardless of what happens in Super Bowl XLVII, although his status as the game’s best inside linebacker of all-time might be boosted with a second Lombardi. The Ravens have been on a magical “Ride with Ray” and he’s been the face of a defense that’s turned from average in the regular season to excellent in the playoffs.

Ed Reed is another obvious Hall of Famer, even though unlike Lewis he was not a member of the 2000 Ravens teams that won the Super Bowl. Still, considering Troy Polamalu has appeared in three and won two of these games, Reed’s resume will look slightly less glamorous if he never is able to win a Super Bowl. And while it isn’t particularly relevant here, but I’ll just note that from 2005 to 2007, Bob Sanders made them a “Big Three” at the position, when Sanders won both a Super Bowl and a Defensive Player of the Year award. All three have battled injuries, showing just how dangerous the safety position can be in the NFL.
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Regular readers surely recall my “What are the Odds of That” post from this summer. In that article, I referenced an obscured Jacoby Jones stat: in 2011, he gained three times as many receiving yards against teams at the back end of the alphabet as he did against the teams he faced in the front of the alphabet. Then I asked, “what are the odds of that?”

This is a very good reason why it’s often inappropriate to apply standard significance tests to football statistics. Surely Jones’ splits would pass any standard significance test, signaling that his wild split was in fact “real” even though we know it wasn’t. With a large enough sample, you would expect to have false positives, which isn’t a knock on standard significant testing. If something is statistically significant at the 1% level, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect to see a false positive if you have 100 different samples…

Some in the statistical community refer to this as the Wyatt Earp Effect. You’ve undoubtedly heard of Wyatt Earp, who is famous precisely because he survived a large number of duels. What are the odds of that? Well, it depends on your perspective. The odds that one person would survive a large number of duels? Given enough time, it becomes a statistical certainty that someone would do just that. Think back to the famous Warren Buffett debate on the efficient market hypothesis. Suppose that 225 million Americans partake in a single elimination national coin-flipping contest, with one coin flip per day. After 20 days, we would expect 215 people to successfully call their coin flips 20 times out of 20. But that doesn’t mean those 215 people are any better at calling coins than you or I am. The Wyatt Earp Effect, the National Coin Flipping Example, and my Splits Happen post all illustrate the same principle. Asking “what are the odds of that?” is often meaningless in retrospect. If you look at enough things, enough players’ splits, enough 4th quarter comeback opportunities, enough coin flips, or enough roulette wheel spins, you will see some things that seem absurdly unlikely.

In December, I highlighted Matt Schaub’s struggles in night games compared to day games as yet another example. Well now, Ray Rice is the latest protagonist in What are the Odds of That? In case you missed it, Rice fumbled twice in Baltimore’s playoff win over Indianapolis, with the Colts recovering both times. Rice has struggled with fumbles in the playoffs in the past, but he’s always been outstanding during the regular season at holding on to the ball. In 2012, he lost just one fumble — which went harmlessly out of bounds — giving him a clean record for the season. So what’s going on? Here’s what Bill Barnwell wrote earlier this week:
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