Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
25 Jul 2004
Ricky Williams shockingly retired this weekend, which is an interesting coincidence of timing. Last week we were talking about running one of our new articles from Pro Football Forecast on the website as a way to promote the book. I wanted to run the article I wrote on Ricky Williams for the Miami section, since I was tired of having to refer to the idea that Ricky had been overworked in 2002 without being able to use specific arguments that were being saved for the book. The title below is what I was originally planning to call this article when I was going to write it for the website; in the book, it is called something like "Will Ricky Williams Bounce Back in 2004" which just doesn't have the same je ne sais qua.
The DVOA stats listed below may be slightly different from the more advanced version currently on the website.
by Aaron Schatz
2003 was not a good year for Ricky Williams. It was thought that, after 1853 yards in 2002, he had taken the great leap forward and established himself as one of the four or five elite running backs in the NFL. After Miami's shocking opening loss in Houston set an all-time record for getting people tossed out of suicide pools, Williams had games of 125 and 153 yards, and all seemed well.
It wasn't, however. After the bye week, Williams suffered through a six-week stretch where he never hit 100 yards and in three different games couldn't even reach 40 yards. Not only did Ricky seem to lack the explosiveness of 2002, he didn't even seem to have the chance to show any explosiveness as thanks to a struggling offensive line anchored by rookie (and Dwight Freeney abuse object) Wade Smith. He finished better, with five 100-yard games in the final seven, but even then his high was only 111 yards. He ended the season with 1372 yards, a 25 percent drop from the year before, and scored nine touchdowns instead of 16.
As much of a disappointment as the fantasy numbers were, Williams' real life value was even worse. His DVOA was +2.9% in 2002, showing that, on a per play basis, he wasn't that much better than an average back at really helping the team get closer to first downs or points. (What the heck is DVOA? One of our innovative statistics. Explained here.) But at least he had some positive value because he gave the Dolphins so many carries compared to a replacement-level back. In 2003, his DVOA was -14.2%, near the bottom of the league, and actually below our estimate of "replacement level." Conventional rushing statistics don't hide the collapse: Williams dropped from 4.8 yards per carry to 3.5.
This year, fantasy football players and Miami fans alike will go into the season expecting a rebound from Williams. Miami fans will focus on him as the focal point of the Dolphin offense. Most fantasy players will see Williams as still worthy of a top ten pick, part of the upper echelon of backs that includes Holmes, Tomlinson, Lewis, and Portis.
These people are all in for some serious disappointment, because the likelihood of Ricky Williams repeating his 2002 season is about the same as Christina Aguilera entering a nunnery. In fact, past experience shows that Williams could be in for an even bigger letdown in 2004. (I think the nunnery can officially cancel Christina's reservation now.)
The important number when it comes to Ricky Williams' career going forward is not the 1372 yards he had in 2003 or even the 3.5 yards per carry. No, the important number is 392, as in the number of carries Williams had in 2003. That is the sixth-highest single season total in NFL history. It follows a season in which Williams had 383 carries, the 13th highest total in NFL history.
Unfortunately for the Dolphins, the roll call of running backs that Williams has joined atop the all-time single season carries list reads like a who's who of guys who fell off the cliff.
Here are all the running backs in NFL history who topped 370 carries in a single season. These backs basically fall into three categories: guys who got injured the next year, guys who were never as good again, and guys who are Eric Dickerson.
|J. Anderson||1998||410||Blew out ACL in 1999, mediocre in 2000|
|J. Wilder||1984||407||As good in 1985, but limited by injuries afterwards|
|E. Dickerson||1986||404||The Randy Johnson of running backs|
|E. George||2000||403||Fell from 3.7 to 3.0 yd/carry, replacement level since|
|G. Riggs||1985||397||Fell from 4.3 to 3.9 yd/carry in 1986, part-time player from 1987 on|
|R. Williams||2003||392||We'll never know now, will we?|
|T. Davis||1998||392||Blew out ACL in 1999, more aborted comebacks than The Monkees|
|B. Foster||1992||390||9 games in 1993, 11 games in 1994, then gone|
|E. Dickerson||1983||390||Ran better than he enunciates|
|E. Dickerson||1988||388||First full Colts season; finally broke down in 1990|
|E. James||2000||387||Blew out ACL in 2001, hasn't been same since return|
|R. Williams||2002||383||Will forever be seen as a fluke year|
|W. Payton||1984||381||ED-like exception, still great until 1987|
|M. Allen||1985||380||Fell from 4.6 to 3.6 yd/carry|
|E. Dickerson||1984||379||The all-time record, 2105 yards|
|G. Rogers||1981||378||Injuries in 1982-1983, poor 1984 followed by two-year Redskins comeback|
|E. Smith||1995||377||Fell from 4.7 to 3.7 yd/carry and never topped 4.2 yd/carry again|
|J. Bettis||1997||375||Fell from 4.4 to 3.8 yd/carry, didn't top 4.0 again until fluky 2001|
|J. Riggins||1983||375||Fine in 1984, but battled injuries in 1985 and retired|
|E. Campbell||1980||373||Fell from 5.2 to 3.8 yd/carry, broke down so bad he can hardly walk now|
|E. Smith||1992||373||Still great until season listed above|
|L. Tomlinson||2002||372||So far no effects, actually better in 2003 with fewer carries|
|C. Okoye||1989||370||Part-time player by the following year, done after 1992|
That is not a list that should inspire confidence in Dolphins fans (or, for that matter, Ravens fans -- notice who else is on there). Yes, there are some backs on the list who did not falter after their high-carry seasons, even a couple who are not named Eric Dickerson. But Williams' 2003 performance already shows the effects of his 2002 overuse, and he's unlikely to have a resurgence after even more use in 2003.
What impact will this have on his team? Leaving out 2003-2004, the teams that featured the running backs in the top 40 for all-time single season carries fell an average of 1.2 wins the following season. The teams that featured the running backs listed above -- the ones with 370 carries or more -- fell an average of 1.8 wins. Obviously these teams were all in different situations with different quality passing games and defenses. But a mediocre Ricky Williams -- or, worse, an injured Ricky Williams -- does not bode well for a team that may be breaking in a former third-string quarterback (A.J. Feeley) as its starter.
Perhaps the problem is not that Ricky's overuse prevents a return to his pre-2003 performance levels, but that his pre-2003 performance levels weren't that great to begin with. Williams' 2002 looks much different in context, now that we have 2003 to look at. Beginning in 1999, Williams' rushing totals go 884, 1000, 1245, 1853, 1352. His yards/carry go 3.5, 4.0, 4.0, 4.8, 3.5. Which year stands out there?
Prior to 2003, 27 different backs in NFL history had risen at least .5 yards/carry from one season to the next, with a minimum of 250 carries both years. The record of these backs shows that such a advance is almost always temporary. On average, these backs regressed by .75 yards/carry in the third year, not counting Jamal Anderson who tore his ACL in year three. Only two of the running backs improved in year three: LaDainian Tomlinson in 2003, and Thurman Thomas in 1991.
|Warner, "The Other Curt"||1986||3.76||4.64||4.21||0.88||-0.43|
Could the outlook for Williams possibly look any worse? Actually, yes, because we haven't addressed the players around Williams. Part of the problem in 2003 can be attributed to a loss of ability on his part, but part of the problem can also be attributed to injured and inexperienced linemen blocking in front of him. Those linemen won't have a chance to improve together, because four of the five were released or left the team in free agency. Instead Miami will cobble together a line with parts good, bad, and ugly. Good, because free agent acquisitions Jeno James (from Carolina) and Damion McIntosh (from San Diego) are well-regarded as run blockers, and they took guard Vernon Carey from the crosstown Hurricanes in the first round of the draft. Bad, because they'll need to promote backups like Taylor Whitney, who didn't even play as a rookie in 2003, and Seth McKinney, who wasn't good enough to play much in the past. Ugly, because the sole starting lineman to remain from 2003 is Wade Smith, the human equivalent of the U.S.-Canadian border.
Sum it all up, and it doesn't look good for ol' cue ball Ricky. Legs worn out from two years of overuse. Historical evidence that a fluke year like 2002 is hard to repeat. Offensive line dominated by mediocre, inexperienced blockers. No amount of haircutting is going to reverse these trends. In the NFL, anything can happen, but Ricky Williams' career as an elite back is probably over.
Well, let's make that "definitely over... at least for now." Now the question becomes, what happens to Miami. The current backup is Travis Minor. Minor has done very well for the past two years in our Football Outsiders statistics, with 31.3% DVOA rushing in 2003 and 24.3% DVOA rushing in 2002. But nearly all his carries come in garbage time. 33 of his 44 carries last year came in the fourth quarter. 39 of his 44 carries came with the Dolphins leading or losing by more than a touchdown. The previous year, he had a few more meaningful carries, and was very good when he had the ball, but there's no way to say that he could be a quality starting back based on that small sample size.
Speaking of small sample size, one of the free agent backs being discussed as a possible Ricky replacement is Stacey Mack. The four of you who were reading this website a year ago when we started may remember that one of my first articles was about Mack's remarkably underrated 2002 performance. Mack then went to Houston and was dreadful, averaging 2.7 yards per carry and rating a -20.6% DVOA before being pulled and replaced by rookie Domanick Davis. This was the worst fall from brilliant backup to dreadful frontman since Krist Novoselic put out that unlistenable Sweet 75 record after Kurt Cobain died. In retrospect, I did not fully appreciate the issue of small sample size; since I only had one year of DVOA ratings done at that point, I assumed Mack had always been this good. Actually, Mack has been horribly inconsistent from year to year over his career:
So, while Mack might make a nice signing, we really would have no idea what to expect. Probably something like 2001, a year which not only saw him carry the ball the most but also lies between the two extremes. There's talk that Miami might trade for Anthony Thomas, but he's been as inconsistent as Mack on a year-to-year basis. They could sign James Stewart, but they can't expect much from a player who didn't take the field last season. In fact, I'm not sure you could expect much from any of these guys because Miami has the same offensive line problems, Ricky or no Ricky.
Many people think that this is a blow to Miami's 2004 season because of Ricky's ability to be a dominant back. As I wrote above, there was no more ability to be a dominant back. As I wrote in our Scramble for the Ball AFC Preview, I expect some improvement from the Miami passing game and not too much decline from the Miami defense. When you put that all together, could this actually be good for Miami?
Probably not. Numbers can measure a lot of things, but it is difficult to measure psychology, and that is the area where this will almost assuredly destroy Miami's chances to win this season. We already knew that Miami had a tumultuous offseason, but they are now in the midst of complete and total panic. The players on this team are going to show up in camp this week all thinking the same thing: "We have no chance." It takes a strong coaching job to reverse this kind of emotional freefall. Look again at this picture. Look at this man's face. Does this look like the kind of man who thinks he can win without Ricky Williams? Does this look like the kind of man who can walk into the Miami locker room this week and convince those players that they can win without Ricky Williams?
No, this man is giving the Keystone "Bitter Beer Face." He does not in any way believe that he can motivate his players to win this season. All is lost.
In the end, it turns out that it is Dave Wannstedt, not Ricky Williams, who is pretty much screwed.
2 comments, Last at 30 Jul 2009, 9:18am by Reliable but