I’ve written a couple of times about “yards per carry” as a key statistic to grade running backs. The usual argument in favor of using YPC is that a running back who rushes for 1200 yards on 300 carries is less valuable, all else being equal, than one who rushes for 1200 yards on 250 carries. But when it comes to running backs and yards per carry, “all else” is is never equal. Two players come to mind whenever yards per carry is cited for running backs: Eddie George and Curtis Martin.
From 1996 to 2002, George led the league with 2,421 carries. Only Martin (2,236) was within 300 carries of George. In NFL history, Eric Dickerson is the only player to ever record more carries during a player’s first seven seasons. But some would have you believe that George wasn’t very good during those seven years, because he averaged just 3.71 yards per carry. During that stretch, the Titans went 68-44, giving them the fourth best record in the NFL and the second-best mark in the AFC during that span. But, the yards-per-carry proponents would argue, Jeff Fisher didn’t know what he was doing when he kept handing the ball off to George, play after play, game after game, year after year.
In 1998, the Jets went 12-4 and earned a first-round bye; New York went 12-1 in Vinny Testaverde’s thirteen starts, and finished in the top five of the league in points, yards, and first downs. That season, Curtis Martin received 369 carries despite missing one game due to injury. Martin rushed 25+ times in seven games and recorded at least 17 carries in every game that year… and averaged only 3.49 yards per carry. There are some who would have you believe that the Hall of Fame head coach didn’t quite know what he was doing that year, and the Jets would have been even better had the team called Martin’s number less frequently.
It’s not that I think yards per carry is meaningless, or that it’s better to produce a low YPC average. I just think that “yards per carry” is only one small piece of evidence to let us know how talented or valuable or productive a running back is. And in my opinion, the number of carries he receives is a much bigger piece of evidence of that player’s abilities. But today, I want to look at yards per carry in connection with another statistic: points per drive.
First, we should keep in mind that YPC has not been consistent throughout history, and was at a relatively low point during the primes of the careers of Martin and George. The graph below shows the league-wide yards per carry average — among only running backs — since 1970:
That’s an interesting graph1, but that is only the supporting material to get us to what I really want to examine. There are thirty-seven running backs since 1970 who have met the following criteria:
- Finished at least 8% below league average in rushing yards per carry; and
- Recorded at least 70% of their team’s rush attempts (among running backs)
This lets us see those players who were both workhorses and had poor YPC averages (taking 8% off of a 4.25 YPC average would include all players who averaged fewer than 3.91 yards per carry). My thinking is that if you are the workhorse for a productive offense, that’s very strong evidence that you are doing something right: great offenses don’t tend to waste three hundred plays on mediocre players. This is something Jason Lisk, Doug Drinen, Neil Paine and I used to discuss behind the scenes when the four of us contributed to the PFR Blog, and Jason was the one who suggested we compare running backs by both yards per carry and points per drive.
The table below lists these 37 running backs, but the table is sorted by the Offensive Points Per Estimated Drive produced by that team.2 LaDainian Tomlinson comes up first on the list, and here’s how to read his line. In 2008, a 29-year-old LT put up a 292-1110-11 stat line. That’s a 3.80 yards per carry average in a year when all running backs averaged 4.25 yards per carry. Tomlinson therefore produced just 89.5% of the league-average YPC, but he received 75.8 of all carries that went to Chargers running backs that season. And in 2008, San Diego ranked 2nd in Offensive Points Per Estimated Drive. George also appears several times at the top of this list, including some brutal yards per carry averages during years when the Titans still had a very good offense.
Of course, once you see the bottom of the list, it’s easy to form the counter-argument. Perhaps the most logical interpretation is that if a running back is going to have a poor YPC average, it’s more impressive if he does it on a bad offense like Trent Richardson or Clinton Portis. After all, if a running back is facing stacked boxes because of his poor quarterback play, it seems easier to forgive them. On the other hand, it strikes me as much fairer to wonder why a bad offense gave so many carries to a running back who had a poor rushing average.
I’m not sure where I stand on this. So I thought I’d produce the data and see what you guys have to say. How would you use yards per carry and points per drive?