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Ellington races for a long touchdown

Ellington races for a long touchdown.

Arizona is one of many teams in the NFL employing a running back by committee philosophy, but no team — now, or at any point in modern history — allocated time quite like the Cardinals. Through nine weeks, Rashard Mendenhall has 105 rushes for 323 yards, giving him a miniscule 3.1 yards per carry average. Mendenhall arrived in the desert this offseason, as part of a reunion with new Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians. The duo worked together for three years in Pittsburgh, where Mendenhall rushed for 3,309 yards and 29 touchdowns and averaged 4.2 yards per carry. But Mendenhall hasn’t been close to the best back added this offseason, as Clemson’s Andre Ellington — a sixth round of the 2013 Draft — has 388 yards this year on 54 carries. Thanks to his spectacular 7.2 yards per carry average, he has outgained Mendenhall despite seeing roughly half as many carries.

How crazy is it for one back in a committee to average more than four more yards per carry than the other back? I ran the following query for every team since 1970:

  • First, I noted the two running backs who recorded the most carries for each team
  • Next, I eliminated all running back pairs where the lead back had over 150 more carries than the backup.
  • I also eliminated all pairings where the lead back was a lead back in name only due to injury to the starter (otherwise, years where Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden ranked second on their team in carries would be inappropriately included). To do that, I deleted sets where the “lead” back — defined as the back with the most carries — averaged fewer carries per game than the second running back.

After running through those criteria, the table below shows all situations where the backup averaged at least one more yard per rush than the lead back. As always, the table is fully searchable and sortable. It is currently sorted by the difference between the YPC average of the backup and the starter, but you can sort by year to bring the recent instances to the top.

YearTeamStarterRshYdsYPCBackupRshYdsYPCDiff (Rsh)Diff (YPC)
1987RAIMarcus Allen2007543.77Bo Jackson815546.841193.07
1975SFOLarry Schreiber1343372.51Delvin Williams1176315.39172.88
2007ATLWarrick Dunn2277203.17Jerious Norwood1036135.951242.78
2010KANThomas Jones2458963.66Jamaal Charles23014676.38152.72
1984NORGeorge Rogers2399143.82Hokie Gajan1026156.031372.21
1970PITPreston Pearson1735032.91John Fuqua1386915.01352.1
1999BALErrict Rhett2368523.61Priest Holmes895065.691472.08
1974CINBoobie Clark993123.15Charlie Davis723755.21272.06
1973MIALarry Csonka21910034.58Mercury Morris1499546.4701.82
1981MIAAndra Franklin2017113.54Tony Nathan1477825.32541.78
1990KANChristian Okoye2458053.29Barry Word20410154.98411.69
2009SEAJulius Jones1776633.75Justin Forsett1146195.43631.68
2009NORMike Bell1726543.8Pierre Thomas1477935.39251.59
1986INDRandy McMillan1896093.22Albert Bentley733514.811161.59
2009DALMarion Barber2149324.36Felix Jones1166855.91981.55
1970DALCalvin Hill1535773.77Duane Thomas1518035.3221.55
2009DENKnowshon Moreno2479473.83Correll Buckhalter1206425.351271.52
2005SFOKevan Barlow1765813.3Frank Gore1276084.79491.49
1987KANChristian Okoye1576604.2Herman Heard824665.68751.48
2008NWESammy Morris1567274.66Kevin Faulk835076.11731.45
2007CARDeShaun Foster2478763.55DeAngelo Williams1447174.981031.43
2003ATLT.J. Duckett1977793.95Warrick Dunn1256725.38721.42
2008DALMarion Barber2388853.72Tashard Choice924725.131461.41
1991PITMerril Hoge1656103.7Barry Foster964885.08691.39
2011NWEBenJarvus Green-Ellis1816673.69Stevan Ridley874415.07941.38
1971BALTom Matte1736073.51Norm Bulaich1527414.88211.37
1982DENRick Parros772773.6Gerald Willhite703474.9671.36
2007DETKevin Jones1535813.8T.J. Duckett653355.15881.36
1979CINPete Johnson2438653.56Archie Griffin1406884.911031.35
2000NYGRon Dayne2287703.38Tiki Barber21310064.72151.35
2012DETMikel Leshoure2157983.71Joique Bell824145.051331.34
2011TAMLeGarrette Blount1847814.24Earnest Graham372065.571471.32
1971CHIDon Shy1164203.62Cyril Pinder633114.94531.32
1999OAKTyrone Wheatley2429363.87Napoleon Kaufman1387145.171041.31
1993CINHarold Green2155892.74Derrick Fenner1214823.98941.24
2010NWEBenJarvus Green-Ellis22910084.4Danny Woodhead975475.641321.24
1971NORBob Gresham1273833.02Jim Strong954044.25321.24
2011NORMark Ingram1224743.89Pierre Thomas1105625.11121.22
1973CINBoobie Clark2549883.89Essex Johnson1959975.11591.22
2001DALEmmitt Smith26110213.91Troy Hambrick1135795.121481.21
1983MIAAndra Franklin2247463.33Tony Nathan1516854.54731.21
1982WASJohn Riggins1775533.12Joe Washington441904.321331.19
1972NORBob Gresham1213813.15Bill Butler542334.31671.17
1975DETAltie Taylor1956383.27Dexter Bussey1576964.43381.16
1974WASLarry Brown1634302.64Moses Denson1033913.8601.16
1999NYGJoe Montgomery1153483.03Tiki Barber622584.16531.14
1974NORJess Phillips1745563.2Alvin Maxson1657144.3391.13
2003MINMoe Williams1747454.28Onterrio Smith1075795.41671.13
2010NYGAhmad Bradshaw27612354.47Brandon Jacobs1478235.61291.12
2005PHIBrian Westbrook1566173.96Ryan Moats552785.051011.1
2005DENMike Anderson23910144.24Tatum Bell1739215.32661.08
2007DENTravis Henry1676914.14Selvin Young1407295.21271.07
1975CHIWalter Payton1966793.46Roland Harper1004534.53961.07
2004STLMarshall Faulk1957743.97Steven Jackson1346735.02611.05
2009NYGBrandon Jacobs2248353.73Ahmad Bradshaw1637784.77611.05
1971PHILee Bouggess972622.7Ronnie Bull943513.7331.03
2007SEAShaun Alexander2077163.46Maurice Morris1406284.49671.03
1972CLELeroy Kelly2248113.62Bo Scott1235714.641011.02
1991CHINeal Anderson2107473.56Brad Muster904124.581201.02

After ten weeks, Ellington is averaging 4.08 more yards per carry than Mendenhall, an obviously unsustainable rate. Over the rest of the 2013 season, Ellington’s yards per carry average will go down, and Mendenhall’s will regress to the mean, too. It’s also possible that Ellington starts getting more carries, and ultimately finishes 2013 with more attempts than Mendenhall (making them ineligible to be on this list). But at least for now, this type of time share would stand out as one of the hardest to justify in NFL history.

  • The moment I saw the headline, immediately thought of the FO favorite, “In 2010, Todd Haley inexplicably calls Thomas Jones’ number over and over and over again despite having wunderkind Jamaal Charles.” Glad to see this method ranks that absurd situation highly.

    Aside from that, just now realized that perhaps there’s an age phenomenon going on here. Seems like the top of the list is “27-or-older RB getting legacy carries ahead of 25- or-younger guy.” Looking at Marcus Allen, on the top line I’m baffled how he made the Pro Bowl ’87 (even with the strike), but even more so in ’86 (i.e., the definition of a “pedestrian performance”).

    • Chase Stuart

      Yeah, Allen’s numbers are not commensurate with his reputation. Whether that’s because the numbers don’t tell the story or he is overrated is up to the reader.

      • Kibbles

        Marcus Allen is a rich man’s Jerome Bettis.

  • There’s a lot of change-of-pace/3rd down back things going on there. Sammy Morris/Kevin Faulk or Benjarvus/Danny Woodhead are clearly not apples to apples comparisons.

    OTOH, riding Kevan Barlow over Frank Gore is really silly.

    I like that Bradshaw/Brandon Jacobs had consecutive seasons in alternate columns of this in 2009-10

    • Chase Stuart

      I was going to simply exclude any combos where RB1 was greater than 4.0, but I’m in favor of providing more data and letting you guys do that. I would agree that the Morris/BJGE combos don’t really serve as comparables due to their high YPC.

      I also found the Bradshaw/Jacobs pairing interesting, and it serves (at least, to me) as an example of why YPC is overrated — it wildly fluctuates from year to year.

  • Sunrise089

    2010 KC then and now jumps out as the worst coaching move of the list considering the size of the samples that year.

    • Kibbles

      Especially with the additional information we’ve received since then.

      Sometimes a coaching staff limits a player’s workload simply because they don’t think he could stand up to it. Mewelde Moore is a great example of this. Every time he played, he was electric and effective, but something like 5 different coaching staffs kept him in a limited, change-of-pace role. Personally, I think “there is something about Mewelde Moore about which we are unaware that made it sub-optimal to give him a large number of carries” is a far more plausible explanation than “something like five different NFL coaching staffs were incompetent buffoons”.

      With Jamaal Charles, however, we’ve subsequently received a ton of information suggesting that he can handle an expanded workload just fine. Let’s start with the fact that he already got over 200 carries in his “timeshare year”. Add in his 285 carries last year (7th in the league) and his 190 carries this year (4th in the league), and it seems that Jamaal Charles could have held up just fine to an expanded workload. Which makes Haley’s refusal to give him an expanded workload all the more indefensible. If Romeo Crennel and Andy Reid had also limited Charles’ usage, then Haley’s decision would seem much more appropriate in hindsight.

  • Payton

    I realize the number of carries might not meet the minimum, but the Brown/Richardson combo has a 3.1 YPC differential. That’d put it near the top of the list, if not the very top, and it looks like there are a few other pairings with around the same number of carries.