Ben Muth explains how Tampa Bay's backup running backs trampled all over San Francisco last week.
06 Jun 2007
by Bill Barnwell
The 2007 season will bring the Tennessee Titans a new number-one running back and receiver by default. The loss of Travis Henry to Denver and Drew Bennett to St. Louis means that their team-leading yardage totals in 2006 will have to be made up elsewhere. Surely this can't be a good thing for the rapidly-developing Vince Young, no? Well, ten teams since 1966 have seen their top rusher and wideout move elsewhere in the off-season. Here are those teams, along with the effect the defections had on their offensive rank by points scored as well as yardage.
|NFL Rank, Points||NFL Rank, Yards|
|1971||St. Louis Cardinals||20||23||-3||12||23||-11|
|1992||New England Patriots||27||22||+5||27||24||+3|
|1993||San Diego Chargers||10||5||+5||20||11||+9|
|1997||San Diego Chargers||26||29||-3||27||28||-1|
While the differences shown above are wildly disparate, the averages are mild and mundane -- the average scoring rank was -1.3 places below their previous performance, while their yards rank actually went up very slightly. In other words, there appears to be no real discernible pattern. Each of the teams made its moves for different reasons:
The Cardinals were an awful passing team, with quarterback Jim Hart yet to approach a completion percentage of 50 percent in six seasons. The only receiver of any note was John Gilliam, who caught a mediocre 42 passes. Leading rusher MacArthur Lane rushed for a respectable 3.9 yards per carry, but only got the ball 150 times; he split time with Cid Edwards, who averaged a yard per carry less. Gilliam, Lane, and Edwards all left for the NFC Central after the season, with Donny Anderson coming over from Green Bay in exchange for Lane in a challenge trade. Anderson performed slightly worse than Lane, but backfield mate Johnny Roland played much better than Edwards in an increased role. Meanwhile, Gilliam was replaced by former Chargers first rounder Walker Gillette and rookie receiver Ahmad Rashad. Hart got hurt and missed half the season, but when he came back in 1973, he completed 55 percent of his passes and made four consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl.
Unlike the Cardinals, the Colts were a playoff team at the time they made the switch. Lydell Mitchell, who ran for nearly 1,200 yards and caught 70 passes, went to San Diego in exchange for 1976 first-round pick Joe Washington. Washington put up similar rate numbers but didn't get the ball as often. While Mitchell led the team in receptions and yards in 1977, the top receiver who didn't come out of the backfield was tight end Raymond Chester, who had 63 fewer yards than Mitchell. He went to Oakland to backup Dave Casper. The '78 team tried to replace him at tight end with rookie Reece McCall, but the youngster wasn't up for the challenge until 1979. Meanwhile, slot receiver Roger Carr returned to a role of big-play prominence in the offense, catching 30 passes for 629 yards. The real difference between the two teams, though, was the play at quarterback. The fantastic Bert Jones only played seven games between 1978 and 1979 because of injury, and backup Bill Troup dropped off in an ugly way, losing five percent from his prior completion percentage and throwing 21 interceptions against 10 touchdowns.
The Patriots organization underwent a massive overhaul between '92 and '93, replacing Dick McPherson with Bill Parcells and drafting Drew Bledsoe with the first overall pick. Bledsoe replaced the quarterback hydra that was Hugh Millen, Tom Hodson, Scott Zolak, and Jeff Carlson, with only Zolak sticking around to throw two incomplete passes in '93. Leading rusher Jon Vaughn, the Patriots' fifth-round pick in 1991, was cut and out of the league by 1994. Leonard Russell, who had struggled with injuries in 1992, returned to the fold and ran for 1,088 yards. At receiver, though, the Patriots took a huge hit with the loss of Irving Fryar to the rival Dolphins. Fryar immediately raised his game to a new level despite Dan Marino's season-ending injury, while the Patriots expanded Michael Timpson's role and drafted Vincent Brisby in the second round. In addition, while 1992 saw tight end Marv Cook catch 52 passes and backup Ben Coates 20, the following year Coates grabbed 53 and Cook 22. Coates would begin a run of five consecutive Pro Bowls the next season.
The '93 Chargers were seen as a disappointment after an 11-win campaign in 1992, so changes were made to try and inspire a return to form; Stan Humphries was named the starting quarterback, with John Friesz gone to Seattle. Marion Butts headed to New England, while star wideout Anthony Miller made his way to the Broncos. Improvements came across the board. Humphries' rate statistics increased dramatically, with Miller's loss replaced by a balanced attack featuring undrafted free agent Mark Seay, former Dolphins receiver Tony Martin, and an expanded role for Shawn Jefferson. The real upgrade, though, was the replacement of Butts with backup Natrone Means, who rushed for 1,350 yards in his only real season of prominence. The changes pushed the Chargers back to 11 wins and a Super Bowl appearance in '94.
The Cardinals collapsed in 1995, but it wasn't because their offense got much worse (as it went from 27th in points scored to 28th); instead, their defense went from being fourth in the league to dead last, which ended Buddy Ryan's term as the resident defensive genius in the desert. Perhaps buoyed by the Chargers' success, the Cardinals made wholesale changes on offense: Dave Krieg replaced Jay Schroeder and Steve Beuerlein at quarterback, while running back Ronald Moore went to the Jets in exchange for new number-one wideout Rob Moore. The rushing slack was picked up by 1993 first-round pick Garrison Hearst, who ran for 1,070 yards in his first season as a starter. The Cardinals replaced both starting wideouts, as Ricky Proehl and Gary Clark were replaced by Moore and rookie second-rounder Frank Sanders; the player who led the team in yardage, though, was the drastically underappreciated Larry Centers, who caught 101 passes for nearly 1,000 yards out of the backfield in 1995.
The basement-dwelling Oilers were also making wholesale changes, as 1994 saw Jeff Fisher enter the fold in midseason as an interim head coach. He hasn't budged since (although the whole team picked up and left town). With Warren Moon gone, the '94 team was a mix of bad ideas (Bucky Richardson/Cody Carlson) and bad jokes (Billy Joe Tolliver) at quarterback. 1995 saw Chris Chandler come in and perform admirably while Steve McNair slowly developed behind him. Leading rusher Lorenzo White went and finished his career in Cleveland, while rookie third-rounder Rodney Thomas rushed for 947 yards before being replaced in 1996 by Eddie George. Starting wideout Webster Slaughter went to Kansas City, with his performance replaced by third-rounder Chris Sanders and the newly-acquired Frank Wycheck. You'll note how the pieces of what ended up being an excellent team came into place over the course of these two seasons, a development pattern Tennessee hopes that Fisher repeats in 2007.
Ted Marchibroda swapped out all of his offensive parts and managed to score 57 fewer points; that's a good way to lose your job. That being said, he didn't actually make too many awful moves. He replaced the reasonably effective Vinny Testaverde with the similarly-productive Jim Harbaugh, giving Eric Zeier more of a chance in the process; Zeier would be frozen out when Brian Billick arrived in '99, but put up solid numbers as a pro and probably could've been more useful than he was given credit for. At running back, Bam Morris' substance abuse troubles led to his being cut and replaced by an obscure undrafted rookie by the name of Priest Holmes; Holmes ran for 1,008 yards as a rookie, averaged 5.7 yards per carry in a part-time role while struggling with injuries in 1999, and then lost his job to Jamal Lewis in 2000 before going to Kansas City. At wide receiver, Derrick Alexander went to Kansas City, while number-two receiver Michael Jackson's performance dropped by a third playing with Harbaugh. Most of the leftover passes went to aging veteran Floyd Turner, in his final NFL season. Tight end Eric Green's performance also dropped in half in 1998.
Despite Raymont Harris' running for 1,000 yards, the Bears drafted Curtis Enis in the first round and acquired longtime Packers running back Edgar Bennett, with Harris going to Green Bay. The significantly underrated Ricky Proehl left to become the Rams' slot receiver, replaced by the even more significantly underrated Bobby Engram. Erik Kramer was the starting quarterback, and Rick Mirer (who I'd forgotten was ever a Bears quarterback) backed up. Next year, something named Steve Stenstrom got to throw 196 passes. The Bears wouldn't get their offense right until 2001, by which point Dave Wannstedt had lost his job.
Noted offensive guru Kevin Gilbride couldn't get the offense right, and '98 saw him replaced halfway through the season by June Jones. The Chargers used the second overall pick in the 1998 draft on Ryan Leaf, which should give you clue one as to why they actually got worse. Gary Brown went to New York and was replaced by the returning Natrone Means, who put out his last competent season in response. Unfortunately, the Chargers couldn't find a replacement for Tony Martin, with Wendell Davis being pulled out of mothballs after five years out of the NFL. In addition, the following anonymous men showed up at receiver: John Burke, Tony Gaiter, Frank Hartley, Latorio Rachal, and Ryan Thelwell. All were playing in their final NFL season.
You might imagine that it's hard to get worse than being 1-15, but the Panthers offense managed to do it in between '01 and '02. New coach John Fox took the defense from 28th in the league to fifth, but the changes on offense were unproductive. Chris Weinke was swapped out for Rodney Peete, while 2001 leading rusher Richard Huntley was cut and replaced by Dolphins running back Lamar Smith. At wide receiver, Donald Hayes went to New England (where he quickly washed out), with an expanded role given to a cocky third-round pick by the name of Steve Smith. By 2003, the addition of Jake Delhomme pushed the Panthers into the playoffs, where they made it all the way to the big game.
It's hard to find a team that really compares to the Titans; record-wise, the 1993 Chargers and 1994 Cardinals would be closest, but both replaced their quarterback as well and the Titans won't be doing that. The 1992 Patriots had their personnel at similar development and investment levels, but they were really bad and the Titans were average; in addition, saying that Drew Bledsoe and Vince Young are in any way similar stretches credibility. What can be said is that losing the top rusher and receiver from the previous year is by no means a death knell for a team's offense.
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