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?
09 Dec 2005
by Mike Tanier
A few weeks ago, the Panthers and Cardinals were on pace to average less than three yards per carry for the season.
Both teams have improved slightly in the last few weeks, but their per-carry averages remain very low. The Cardinals average 3.132 yards per attempt, the Panthers 3.138. The Packers are also near the bottom of the league at 3.210. Any of these three teams could finish below the three-yard barrier if they have some bad games down the stretch.
The record for the lowest yards per carry average is 0.94, held by the 1940 Eagles. That team rushed 317 times for 298 yards. Not surprisingly, they finished 1-10. Their leading rusher was Dick Riffle, a former #1 draft pick from Albright College. He rushed 84 times for 238 yards, a somewhat respectable 2.9 yards per rush. Imagine how bad his teammates were.
The average team gained 3.2 yards per attempt in 1940; the average is up to 4.0032 this year (not counting Monday Night). It wasn't unusual for teams to average less than three yards per carry in the leather helmet days.
Since the merger, three teams have failed to crack the three-yard barrier: the 1994 Patriots (2.7866), the 1986 Patriots (2.9275) and the 1992 Colts (2.9624). Since the liberalization of the passing rules in 1978, only those teams plus the 1991 Eagles (3.1300), the 2000 Cardinals (3.0479), and the 1999-2000 Chargers (3.0390, 3.0256) have averaged 3.1 yards per carry (rounded) or less.
Somewhat surprisingly, the three teams below the three-yard mark had winning records; two reached the postseason. Drew Bledsoe threw 691 passes in 1994, probably because Marion Butts, Leroy Thompson, Kevin Turner, Sam Gash, and Blair Thomas couldn't provide much punch in the running game. For some reason, Gash carried the ball 30 times that year; he would never rush 11 times in a season again.
The 1986 Patriots were a year removed from the Super Bowl, but Tony Collins (2.6 yards per attempt) was hardly Turbo, Craig James (2.8) was getting ready for the broadcast booth, and Mosi Tatupu (2.4) was clearly distracted by trying to groom his toddler son Lofa into a future Rookie of the Year candidate at linebacker. Still, they went 11-5.
Anthony Johnson, a pretty good all-purpose back, averaged 3.3 yards per rush for the 9-7 Colts in 1992, but rookie Rodney Culver gained just 2.7 yards per attempt, and the scrambling of quarterbacks Jeff George and Jack Trudeau contributed 27 carries and 32 yards.
It actually makes sense that some of the teams at the bottom of the yards-per-carry list are pretty good: good teams run the ball to kill the clock, and they often settle for short gains late in the game. Bad teams abandon the run quickly, which has several consequences: one or two long gains can make the stats look better when there are fewer attempts, as can a scrambling quarterback who is always running for his life.
The 1986 Patriots weren't helped much by Irving Fryar's four carries and 80 yards or by Tony Eason's 4.9 yards per attempt because they ran the ball 469 times: almost 30 carries per game. This year's Cardinals average just over 22 carries per game, so Josh McCown's 17 carries for 89 yards have significant impact on the team's totals, as do the 18 rushes by receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. A 32-yard J.J Arrington run is currently worth over one-tenth of a point in the Cardinals per-carry averages.
The Panthers may have a better chance to slip below the rushing Mendoza Line than the Cardinals. They run the ball a lot, and they aren't shy about feeding Stephen Davis to the pile when it's time to run out the clock. Jake Delhomme has 21 carries for 24 yards; many of his carries are actually kneels. The receivers have lost 10 yards on three carries. At over 30 rushes per game, there's a lot more ballast in their totals: a few long runs won't have quite the same impact, though DeShaun Foster's good game against the Falcons moved the Panthers out of last place.
Most of the historic teams with anemic per-carry averages featured pretty good running backs: Butts, Collins and James, Natrone Means, Adrian Murrell. Stephen Davis fits nicely among this company: power backs (mostly) who hung around a year or two too long. Coaches trust runners like these to gain tough yards near the end zone and hold onto the ball, and they'll give these big, experienced backs extra carries to "try to get going." As you might expect, many of these teams acquired better running backs the following year -- LaDainian Tomlinson, Herschel Walker, Curtis Martin -- and their rushing performance improved.
Even if no team slips below three yards per rush, this season could be unusual if two or more teams finish at or below 3.1 yards per carry. That happened in 2000, when the Cardinals and Chargers did it. Before that, you have to go back to 1977, when the Packers and Buccaneers each averaged 3.1 yards per carry. Ricky Bell, the USC star and #1 pick in the draft, was a rookie running back for the Bucs that year. He averaged just 2.9 yards per rush on 148 carries.
Three yards per carry appears to be the "floor" of rushing statistics: while teams might drift down to 2.9, we'll never see a team average 2.4 yards per carry unless the game itself changes radically. Pro defenses are designed to concede those first nine feet of real estate under most conditions: after that, the offense has to start earning it.
Last week's Too Deep Zone featured short passes, but it ran a little long. Some amusing loose ends had to be snipped.
When sifting through all of a team's one-yard and zero-yard completions, you come across some perplexing stat lines. For example: Week 5, Titans vs. Texans, 1st-and-10 at the Titans' 47-yard line, Steve McNair passes to Michael Roos for a loss of seven yards.
Roos is a rookie offensive tackle. He wasn't the intended receiver. He isn't even an eligible receiver. He can only catch a ball that has been tipped by an eligible receiver or a defender. Roos hauled in a pass that was batted straight in the air by a defensive lineman. He may never catch another pass, but he's on the stat sheet for eternity.
The Football Outsiders spreadsheets list intended receivers as wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, or "other." The Others can be a lot of fun when they aren't chasing down the survivors on Lost. Roos is an Other. So is Browns center Jeff Faine. In the first quarter of Cleveland's loss to the Bengals, Faine caught a pass that bounced off the head of umpire Jim Quirk. Faine was penalized for the quirky play, but the Bengals declined the penalty: Faine lost one yard on third-and-3.
Vince Manuwai is the only other offensive lineman to catch a pass this season; he also lost a yard. We list the player by his position on the field, not his position on the roster, so when players like Dwayne Carswell, Scott Peters, and Matt Vrabel play tight end, they are counted as tight ends, not Others.
But quarterbacks are Others. A quarterback is an eligible receiver when he's in the shotgun but not when he's under center. Several teams have designed option plays where the shotgun quarterback pitches to a halfback, then slips into the flat to catch a pass. The Ravens tried such a play during their brief fling with Kordell Stewart. The play, like most Ravens offensive plays, was a failure.
The only receptions by quarterbacks this season have been "self completions;" plays in which the quarterback catches his own pass after it has been batted into the air. Kurt Warner, Marc Bulger, and Chris Simms have all caught self-passes this year, with Bulger actually gaining one yard.
One of these days, Michael Vick is going to catch a self-pass and run 90 yards for a touchdown. That will happen when he is playing against your fantasy football team.
Anyone who tries to create power rankings or Top-25 polls leaves himself open to criticism. Readers often ask "How can you rank Team A above Team B when B beat A?" Or, they use the Transitive Property of Football Inequality: "Team C beat Team B, who beat Team A, so you had better not rank Team A over Team C."
Such arguments can be difficult to follow if more than one or two teams are involved. Luckily, a website called the College Football Victory Chain helps to keep things sorted out. All you have to do is select the two teams you want to compare. Assuming the "better" team has at least one win and the "worse" team has at least one loss, the computer will search its database to create a daisy chain of wins to connect the teams.
For example: want to prove that Navy is better than Notre Dame? Just point 'n' click: Navy beat Air Force, who beat Washington, who beat Arizona, who beat UCLA, who beat Arizona State, who beat Northwestern, who beat Michigan State, who beat Notre Dame.
What about Bowling Green? Are they better than Miami (Fla)? Yep: Bowling Green beat Ball State, who beat Akron, who beat Middle Tennessee State, who beat Vanderbilt, who beat Wake Forest, who beat Clemson, who beat Florida State, who beat Miami FL. Go Falcons!
Each of those chains consisted of eight links. That's a standard chain when comparing a mid-major to a powerhouse. In theory, the shorter the chain, the less preposterous the claim that A is better than B, though geography and other factors play a role. Wisconsin to UCLA requires three links: through Purdue and Arizona. Wooster to UCLA took 17 links, through Case Western Reserve, Gettysburg, La Salle, and other exotic locales.
Speaking of La Salle, a lean 13-link chain proves once and for all that they are better than Michigan: La Salle beat St Francis of PA, who beat Central Connecticut State, who beat Colgate, who beat Massachusetts, who beat Rhode Island, who beat William & Mary, who beat New Hampshire, who beat UC-Davis, who beat Stanford, who beat Arizona State, who beat Northwestern, who beat Wisconsin, who beat Michigan. La Salle needs just six links to topple Brown: St. Francis, Central Connecticut State, Colgate, Cornell, Harvard, Brown. Guess that shows which of the Football Outsiders really went to the best football school.
Kudos to Patrick Gaule for designing a great site. Check it out and pit your alma mater against Auburn.
72 comments, Last at 11 Dec 2005, 11:29am by Tarrant