After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
05 Aug 2008
by Aaron Schatz
In honor of our fifth anniversary, we're running a series of articles looking at the best and worst players in the history of our advanced stats, DVOA and DYAR. If you are unfamiliar with our advanced stats -- perhaps you are a new reader visiting our website for the first time after picking up a copy of Pro Football Prospectus 2008 -- you can read all about them here. The series so far:
Before we get going, a quick note: I discovered a handful of errors in the rushing totals from 1997. I've gone back to the past articles and retroactively made any necessary changes, and I'll be changing the 1997 numbers on the site soon. It's only a handful of plays, not a big deal.
Let's look at the worst rushing DVOA seasons, minimum 100 carries.
|Worst RB Seasons in Rushing DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 100 carries)|
If that guy was your main running back, wouldn't you consider trading your entire draft for Ricky Williams too? The Saints gave 50 carries to two other running backs, Ray Zellars (-45.7% DVOA in 56 carries) and Troy Davis (-38.1% DVOA in 55 carries). I would say, "maybe it was the offensive line's fault," except that the 1998 Saints had Willie Roaf at left tackle. Seriously. The line also included Chris Naeole and Kyle Turley. That's not a bad line.
From this list, we also learn that Darnell Autry was not exactly meant to be an NFL star, and that handing the ball to Larry Centers instead of throwing the ball to him is not good strategy.
Like we did with the best running back seasons, we'll also look at the worst DVOA ratings for backs with at least 240 carries, or 15 per game. These are guys who started the whole season and were still awful.
|Worst RB Seasons in Rushing DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 250 carries)|
Notice anything about the two seasons that top each list? Yes, both seasons came from Lamar Smith, but that's not all. Both seasons were so bad that the team in question felt the uncontrollable urge to acquire Ricky Williams. And hey... there's Ricky Williams, third on this list. In between them is Eddie George, the year he got clobbered by the Curse of 370.
Jamal Anderson (2000) and Jamal Lewis (2005) are partly on this list because of poor performance against an easy schedule, but their schedule adjustment isn't anywhere near as big as the one for Rodney Hampton of the 1996 Giants.. Washington was last in the league in DVOA for run defense, and no team in the NFC East was higher than 14th (Dallas). The Giants also played the teams ranked 28th (Minnesota) and 29th (Detroit).
On to success rate... Only six running backs during the DVOA Era had at least 100 carries and were successful less than one-third of the time. Here they are:
|Worst RB Seasons in Success Rate, 1995-2007 (min. 100 carries)|
Finally, here are the worst overall rushing seasons since 1995, based on rushing DYAR.
|Worst RB Seasons in Rushing DYAR, 1995-2007|
I had to add a special listing for Raymont Harris, who had the 15th worst DYAR ever in 1998 despite carrying the ball only 79 times. He had only two carries all year for more than six yards, and he only gained a first down once in 10 carries on third or fourth down.
Now, the worst running backs as receivers. Before we get into the numbers, it is fair to mention that the DYAR and DVOA stats for running backs as receivers are not as accurate as we would like when it comes to differentiating between a running back who is a poor receiver and a running back who is trapped in an offense that throws him a lot of dumpoff passes without giving him room to operate. Sometimes you'll see a team where all the backs have good receiving DVOA ratings, or poor receiving DVOA ratings, and you need to use your common sense to try to determine where the blame lies. (A good example would be the Bengals in recent years.)
|Worst RB Seasons in Receiving DVOA, 1995-2007 (min. 25 passes)|
Running backs with a low receiving DVOA are often just guys with an extra fumble or two and a small sample size, but not Gary Brown. Brown's 1998 season is pretty remarkable -- he averaged 1.4 yards per pass and had a grand total of one first down as a receiver, with no fumbles. Adrian Murrell's 1997 season is a good example about how this is not all necessarily the running back's fault. Eight of his 27 catches were for zero yardage or less, so on a few of those, Jets quarterbacks were throwing him the ball while he was behind the line of scrimmage and covered. Ever hear of throwing the ball away? Maybe part of the reason Murrell had such a low catch rate is that he kept dropping balls he knew were destined for lost yardage anyway.
Murrell goes one-two when it comes to the wost receiving DYAR seasons by a running back, and he has a third season that's also in the top ten:
|Worst RB Seasons in Receiving DYAR, 1995-2007|
There's another one of those quirks because we currently use the same baselines for every season -- the list of the worst receiving DYAR for running backs is dominated by players from the 90's. Here's a similar list that starts in 2001:
|Worst RB Seasons in Receiving DYAR, 2001-2007|
Chris Brown: -45 DYAR on just nine pass attempts. Not bad. Here's the list of the worst overall DYAR seasons for running backs:
|Worst RB Seasons in Total DYAR, 1995-2007|
Poor Jonathan Wells got stuck on an expansion team, so that's not a surprising choice as the worst season. What's Lamar Smith's excuse? This was Smith's second year as the starter in Miami, and he wasn't that bad in his first year, with 77 rushing DYAR and 84 receiving DYAR in 2000.
That Warrick Dunn season helps to explain why the KUBIAK projection for Dunn is so low this year. He was miserably bad in 2006. Remember: Jerious Norwood had the best DVOA of any running back with at least 100 carries, running behind the exact same offensive line. This isn't Dunn's only poor season -- you may have noticed him above because in 1999 he had one of the worst rushing DYAR seasons, but he also had 255 receiving DYAR that same year.
Given how many of the lists above are topped by either Lamar Smith or Adrian Murrell, the identities of the running backs with the worst career numbers are probably not too hard to discern.
|Worst RB in Total Career DYAR, 1995-2007|
|Lamar Smith||8||-306||Adrian Murrell||7||-206||Adrian Murrell||7||-406|
|Darnell Autry||2||-212||Gary Brown||4||-121||William Green||4||-270|
|Adrian Murrell||7||-200||Donnell Bennett||5||-106||Troy Davis||3||-213|
|Leonard Russell||2||-192||William Green||4||-90||Ray Zellars||4||-175|
|William Green||4||-180||Tatum Bell||4||-83||Leonard Russell||2||-173|
|Troy Davis||3||-179||Troy Hambrick||4||-65||Lawrence Phillips||3||-161|
|Nick Goings||4||-178||Rudi Johnson||5||-65||Leeland McElroy||2||-144|
|Maurice Smith||1||-174||Erric Pegram||3||-64||Curtis Enis||3||-143|
|Jonathan Wells||3||-166||Clif Groce||1||-60||Jerald Moore||3||-131|
|LeShon Johnson||5||-164||Michael Wiley||3||-59||Darnell Autry||2||-127|
|(only includes seasons with >10 carries or >25 passes)|
It's strange to see some guys on here with just one season, but sometimes you have one season so bad it actually makes the worst career totals list because most guys don't stick around for season after season of below-replacement performance (Well, except Lamar Smith and Adrian Murrell). Maurice Smith has one of the stranger careers in recent NFL history -- an undrafted free agent, he had 19 carries for the 2000 Falcons. In 2001, he replaced the injured Jamal Anderson and started 12 games. He had 237 carries but he was so bad that he never had another NFL carry after that. He had two games as a special-teamer in 2002 and that was the end of his NFL career.
As bad as Smith and Murrell were, they don't get to top the list of the worst running backs on a DYAR per season basis. That honor belongs to one of the great first-round busts of recent memory.
|Worst RB in DYAR per Season, 1995-2007 (min. 4 seasons)|
|William Green||4||-45.0||Gary Brown||4||-30.1||William Green||4||-67.4|
|Nick Goings||4||-44.5||Adrian Murrell||7||-29.5||Adrian Murrell||7||-58.0|
|Lamar Smith||8||-38.2||William Green||4||-22.4||Ray Zellars||4||-43.7|
|LeShon Johnson||5||-32.8||Donnell Bennett||5||-21.2||Sherman Williams||4||-29.1|
|Ray Zellars||4||-31.1||Tatum Bell||4||-20.8||Karim Abdul-Jabbar||4||-21.9|
|Sherman Williams||4||-30.5||Troy Hambrick||4||-16.3||LeShon Johnson||5||-19.1|
|Adrian Murrell||7||-28.6||Rudi Johnson||5||-13.0||Troy Hambrick||4||-15.9|
|Lamar Gordon||4||-25.8||Karim Abdul-Jabbar||4||-13.0||Gary Brown||4||-14.9|
|Lamont Warren||6||-25.0||Ray Zellars||4||-12.6||Anthony Thomas||7||-14.1|
|Robert Holcombe||5||-17.8||Michael Turner||4||-10.0||Nick Goings||4||-13.6|
|(only includes seasons with >10 carries or >25 passes)|
If only Football Outsiders had been around a couple years earlier, perhaps we could have saved the Browns from their terrible mistake. If you have Pro Football Prospectus 2008, you've read an article in the back of the book on Speed Scores, our new stat that combines 40-yard dash time with weight to predict the success of rookie running backs. Since 1999, only two running backs were chosen in the first round of the draft despite a Speed Score below 100: Trung Canidate (99.3) and William Green (98.7).
Next up: the best and worst wide receivers and tight ends.
28 comments, Last at 07 Aug 2008, 11:15am by zlionsfan