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10 Nov 2006

Too Deep Zone: Two Yards at a Time

by Mike Tanier

It's first-and-10 in the first quarter. The home team breaks the huddle. Their first play from scrimmage is a handoff to the running back. He's hit at the line but dives forward. Gain of two yards.

You grumble. Two yards just doesn't cut it on first-and-10. The running back should be able to do better; after all, he averages over four yards per carry, and the league rushing average is around four yards per attempt. Even average runners gain yardage in four-yard chunks. Why can't your favorite halfback be more consistent?

It turns out that the problem isn't with the running back, but with our perception of how that league rushing average is achieved. We may expect four yards per attempt, but a two-yard gain is the most common result for a running play, and no-gainers are almost as common as four-yard runs. We think of running plays as a way to generate consistent yardage with minimal risks. In fact, running plays, like passes, carry a high risk for a non-positive result.

To illustrate how rushing yardage is actually generated, we're going to analyze every rushing play over a two-and-a-half year period. We'll examine how many yards were gained on each play. Then we'll look at specific down-and-distance situations to determine the actual results for rushing on first-and-10 or second-and-long. Finally, we'll break down the statistics of some individual players so we can learn more about the differences between "big play" running backs and more consistent runners.

One or Two Yards and a Cloud of Dust

The NFL rushing average has hovered around 4.0 yards per carry for so long that I refer to the number as "Planck's Constant" in Pro Football Prospectus 2006. That number has colored our perception of what running backs should do on a play-by-play basis. Unfortunately, it's a misleading figure.

Last season, the official yards-per-carry average crept up to 4.1. The Football Outsiders figure was 4.17: 13,903 carries for 58,043 yards. Our data is always slightly different from the official data because we remove quarterback kneel plays (as well as spikes and Hail Marys) and make other minor changes to the official data. Either way, there's no indication that the modest increase is anything but year-to-year fluctuation.

The 4.0-4.1 yard average is an arithmetic mean: add up all the yards, divide by the attempts. The arithmetic mean is easily skewed by extremes in data. A 75-yard run can increase a starting running back's rushing average by several tenths of a point by the end of a season. This skewing always increases rushing averages: there are several 50+ yard rushes every year, but no 50+ yard losses on running plays.

We all know that a few big plays can make a mediocre running back's rushing average look great. But how much effect do long gains have on the league rushing average? The best way to see this is to break down every running play by distance. Table 1 shows the distribution of yardage gained on every rushing play in the NFL in three years: 2000, 2005, and the first six weeks of 2006. The three seasons were chosen so that the data would be current, but would also reflect any changes in the distribution over the last half decade. The table reveals a surprising fact: the mean carry may yield four yards, but the median carry yields only three yards, and the data distribution is centered at two yards.

Table 1: Rushing Yardage Distribution
Yards Gained 2006 2005 2000 Overall
-4 0.8% 0.7% 0.8% 0.8%
-3 1.6 1.4 1.5 1.5
-2 2.5 2.6 2.5 2.5
-1 4.3 4.0 4.5 4.3
0 9.5 8.8 8.6 8.8
1 11.7 12.3 11.9 12.1
2 13.8 14.3 12.4 13.5
3 12.0 12.2 11.3 11.8
4 9.3 9.5 9.2 9.3
5 7.5 7.3 6.8 7.0
6 5.3 5.4 5.1 5.2
7 3.8 4.1 3.8 4.0
8 3.3 3.1 3.1 3.1
9 3.0 2.8 2.8 2.8
10 1.4 1.5 1.5 1.5

Almost 90 percent of all runs fall into the range shown in the table. Over 20 percent of running plays gain zero or one yards. Factor in losses, and over one-fourth of all runs result in negative or negligible yardage. The rushing average for the plays in the -4-to-10 yard range in 2005 was 2.95 yards per attempt. Long runs make up only about nine percent of all rushing plays, but they increase the league rushing average by over 40 percent.

Second and Wrong

The percentages you see in Table 1 aren't broken down by down or field position. Obviously, some of those one-and-two yard runs are positive plays: first downs or touchdowns. But not many. Only about 1.7 percent of one-yard runs and 2.0 percent of two-yard runs yield first downs or touchdowns. Still, there are pollutants in the data which we should address. Are the distributions in Table 1 distorted by short-yardage carries or other factors?

Let's break the data down. We'll start by isolating one of the most basic situations in football: first quarter, first-and-10, in what Football Outsiders calls the "back zone" (between your own 20- and 39-yard lines). The offense is probably working though its pre-game script, and there's nothing about the score of the game or the field position to force the offense's hand or to tip off the defense about what to expect. Table 2 shows the gain distribution in these first down, early-game situations as compared to the overall distribution:

Table 2: First-and-10, Back Zone vs. All Runs
First-and-10 Overall
-4 0.9% 0.8%
-3 1.9 1.5
-2 2.8 2.5
-1 4.1 4.3
0 8.1 8.8
1 10.5 12.1
2 14.3 13.5
3 12.5 11.8
4 10.4 9.3
5 6.3 7.0
6 5.5 5.2
7 4.0 4.0
8 2.6 3.1
9 3.5 2.8
1 1.2 1.5

Pretty similar, right? The "on the chart" mean (the average of all rushes represented in the table) for first-and-10 situations is actually 2.66, lower than the overall overage, and it represents 88.6 of all rushes.

The overall Success Rate for rushing plays hovers around 40 percent. But on first down in the first quarter, the Success Rate was 31 percent in 2005 and the start of 2006 and 35 percent in 2000. For comparison's sake, let's look at the passing data. We don't usually use Success Rate in our analysis of the passing game, but we can compute it, and the Success Rate on first-down, first-quarter, back zone passing plays was 49 percent in 2005, 45 percent in 2000, and 57 percent in a small (188 play) sample of the first few games of 2006.

Now let's analyze the second down data. We'll use full-game, full-field data, but we'll break the carries down by the distance situation: 10+ yards to go, 7-9 yards to go, 4-6 yards to go, and 1-3 yards to go. Table 3 contains all of the data, plus the overall yardage distribution for easy comparison. For the record, the percentages in the chart represent nearly 10,000 rushing plays across three seasons.

Table 3: All Second Downs
10+ 7-9 4-6 1-3 Overall
-4 0.9% 0.8% 1.1 0.7 0.8
-3 1.7 1.9 1.4 0.9 1.5
-2 2.0 3.1 3.0 2.6 2.5
-1 3.7 4.7 4.1 4.8 4.3
0 7.7 7.4 6.8 13.4 8.8
1 10.8 10.6 12.1 14.9 12.1
2 12.6 12.2 13.7 14.3 13.5
3 11.6 10.6 14.5 12.0 11.8
4 10.0 9.8 9.9 9.3 9.3
5 7.5 7.7 7.4 6.2 7.0
6 5.9 7.2 4.2 5.3 5.2
7 4.7 3.6 4.5 3.3 4.0
8 3.3 3.5 3.0 2.4 3.1
9 3.5 2.7 2.1 1.5 2.8
10 1.5 2.5 1.4 1.2 1.5

Before we really crunch the numbers, let's get some John Madden wisdom out of the way. Madden is fond of saying that teams often follow up an incomplete pass on first down with a run on second-and-10. Our data shows that teams run on second down and 10 or more yards about 36.2 percent of the time. The data includes all manner of 2nd-and-long situations, some of which may have occurred after sacks or penalties. If we skimmed away all of these situations, the run percentage on 2nd-and-10 would probably creep up to around 40 percent. So teams don't run "all the time" on 2nd-and-10, but give Madden the benefit of the doubt: teams do run a lot on a down that many of us would associate with passing.

In fact, teams probably run more than they should, considering the 24 percent Success Rate on second-and-very long. The "in-the-box" mean on second-and-10+ is 3.12, indicating that teams are getting some benefit from running against a defense that is anticipating a pass. But the modest increase in yards-per-carry doesn't offset the high likelihood that the team will face a third-and-long situation. Even in "unpredictable" down-and-distance combinations like second down with 4-6 yards to go, the in-the-box mean, covering 89.2 percent of all carries, is just 2.85.

On early downs, the data is very stable and predictable. An offense's chance of gaining three or fewer yards on a running play hovers around 50-55 percent, even on first down in the first quarter or on second-and-10. Only about 17 percent of runs gain the 4-5 yards we would hope to get when a good running back is getting the ball in favorable circumstances. And of the 35-40 percent of runs that gain more than six yards, most are 6-8 yard gains that, when averaged with all of the losses and no gainers, don't get us anywhere near four yards per carry.

The rushing distributions clearly explain why teams throw so often on early downs. Fans may wish that teams would "establish the run" more early in games, but there are good reasons why they don't. That league average of four yards per attempt suggests that teams would face a lot of favorable third-and-two situations if they just plowed ahead with the running game. But working through the charts, we discover that the team that hands off on first and second down has about a 33 percent chance of getting caught in third-and-7 and nearly a 15 percent chance of ending up in a third-and-8 or worse scenario. The rewards for running the ball are often so low that teams are willing to assume the increased risk of a turnover and pass more frequently.

Power Runners and Big-Play Runners

Rushing distributions tell us a great deal about how the modern NFL running game really works. The distributions may also tell us something about the merits of individual running backs. The data samples are smaller, and of course the overall quality of each running back's team is a huge, unaccounted for variable when making comparisons. As a way of negating the importance of team strength as well as studying the contrasts between rushing styles, let's examine a pair of teammates from 2005.

Last season, Tatum Bell gained 920 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Mike Anderson gained 1,014 yards but averaged just 4.2 yards per carry. Despite the wide disparity in yards per carry, DVOA and DPAR ranked Anderson as the better back. Anderson was 37.0 points above replacement level, Bell 16.4. Anderson was 20.3 percent better than the average back, Bell just 7.6 percent.

Bell's rushing average was inflated by several long runs: he had a 68, 67, and 55 yard run in 2005, plus several 35-yard runs. Anderson's longest carry of the season was 44 yards, and that was his only run longer than 25 yards. We all know that Bell is a "home run threat" while Anderson is more consistent. But is it really fair to downgrade Bell because of his long runs? We're inclined to downgrade Bell somewhat because so much of his value is contained in a few plays. But is that really fair? After all, gaining four yards at a time is great and all, but big plays are pretty important, too.

If we look at the rushing breakdowns for Anderson and Bell (Table 4), we can clearly see the contrast in their contributions. Anderson's yardage distribution is centered in the 2-3 yard range, while Bell's is centered in the 1-2 yard range, giving Anderson a full yard-per-play advantage on carry after carry. Bell's advantage, of course, is on runs of more than 10 yards. All but 6.5 percent of Anderson's runs gain from -4 to 10 yards, while 10.5 percent of Bell's runs are outside the chart (he only lost five yards on one play last season). Give them both 200 carries, and Bell will have eight more long runs than Anderson, and those runs will be longer than what Anderson can usually muster. But Anderson will gain an extra yard that Bell couldn't on dozens of other
runs.

Table 4: Denver Yard Distributions, 2005
  Mike Anderson Tatum Bell Overall
-4 0.0% 0.6 0.8
-3 0.8 0.6 1.5
-2 1.3 2.9 2.5
-1 1.7 4.0 4.3
0 7.5 9.2 8.8
1 10.0 11.6 12.1
2 16.7 21.4 13.5
3 18.0 8.7 11.8
4 11.2 8.7 9.3
5 7.1 6.4 7.0
6 7.1 6.9 5.2
7 3.8 3.5 4.0
8 2.5 2.3 3.0
9 4.2 0.6 2.8
10 1.6 1.1 1.5

Anderson's in-the-box mean was 3.36 yards per attempt, noting again that his "box" is larger. Bell's was just 2.67. What's interesting is that we tend to think of backs like Anderson as "ordinary" while backs with Bell's big-play potential are held in higher esteem. But Bell's rushing distribution is more in line with the league norms than Anderson's. He's very good, but his contributions are typical of what backs around the league provide. Anderson, at least in 2005, was the unique player, providing hard-to-get, down-in, down-out production.

The difference between Bell and Anderson suggests that "cloud of dust" backs are more valuable than "boom or bust" backs, but we must be careful when using cheesy labels. Our perception of a back's production profile are often way off. How would you classify Marshall Faulk in his prime? Probably as a boom-or-bust back, albeit one with lots of boom and only a little bust.

But Faulk's running distributions show that in his prime he was much more than a big-play machine. Table 5 shows Faulk's distributions from 2000. For comparison, let's also take a look at James Stewart's breakdowns from that season.

Table 5: Marshall Faulk vs. James Stewart, 2000
M. Faulk J. Stewart
 -4 0.8% 0.0
-3 0.8 0.9
-2 1.9 2.9
-1 3.2 3.2
0 4.3 10.0
1 10.7 14.2
2 13.4 14.2
3 14.2 15.6
4 9.5 12.1
5 8.7 5.6
6 5.9 5.6
7 3.6 3.5
8 2.8 3.5
9 3.6 1.8
10 1.9 1.2

Faulk averaged 5.2 yards per carry and finished first in the NFL in DPAR. His longest run from scrimmage that year was just 38 yards; unlike Bell, his rushing average wasn't pumped up by a few huge gains. Stewart averaged 3.5 yards per carry. Despite gaining 1,184 yards, he posted a negative DVOA, and his DPAR of 3.6 ranked him 26th in the league.

Faulk's in-the-box mean was 3.37, a very good figure. What's more, his "box" only included 86 percent of his runs. Faulk had seven 12-yard runs, six 16-yard runs, and three 18-yard runs in 2000, giving him a very high percentage of 11-20 yard runs. But what's most remarkable about his production was his ability to avoid no-gainers and his above-average totals in the 3-5 yard range. Fast, shifty Faulk was just as good at using his skills to gain a yard or two as he was at burning defenses for long gains.

By contrast, Stewart's ability to avoid losses and pick up two or three yards couldn't offset his complete lack of big-play potential. At first glance, Stewart's distribution looks similar to Andersons. But his in-the-box mean of 2.8 is over a half-yard lower. The differences are subtle -- Anderson is a little more likely to gain five or six yards and a little less likely to lose yardage -- but they add up over a few hundred carries. And Stewart, like Anderson, concentrated 95 percent of his carries in the -4-to-10 yard range, so he had few 10-20 yard bursts to increase his productivity. Stewart, like Anderson, was providing a unique skill, which is why he was able to stay in the league for several years. Unlike Anderson, he wasn't a great exemplar of that skill, and the Football Outsiders metrics took him to task for it.

These players were carefully selected to illustrate certain points. If we analyzed dozens of backs, we may find common distribution patterns. If we studied the same back from year-to-year, we could determine if those patterns are stable and predictive. Some of that research is incorporated in the calculations for Adjusted Line Yards and other stats. The rest, unfortunately, is outside the scope of this little article.

Conclusions

Teams don't generate rushing yards in three-, four-, or five-yard bursts. They gain it through punctuated equilibrium, waiting through dozens of minimal gains for a few big plays per game.

And those big plays aren't that big. We've focused on gains of ten or less in this article, ignoring the 10.5 percent or so of plays that yield more yardage. The vast majority of those runs gain 11-20 yards: 6.9 percent overall. Almost 25 percent of the rushing yardage gained in the NFL is generated on runs of 11-20 yards. There were 960 such runs last year: 30 per team, or just over two per team per game. Amazingly nearly 10 percent of all rushing yardage is generated on runs of 30 or more yards, plays which occur about four times per year for a typical team.

These distribution breakdowns are so interesting that they might seduce us into making some wacky conclusions. Keep in mind that all of these averages and distribution patterns are situation dependent. We might look at the data and suggest that teams stop running the ball altogether on second-and-10, but of course the Success Rate on passing plays would dip sharply if teams stopped threatening to run. These league-wide averages don't necessarily apply to individual teams, so teams with a quality running game may have different distributions that would suggest different optimal strategies. The Bell and Anderson data, for example, indicates that the Broncos have a more versatile running game than the average team, and observation (i.e. actually watching games instead of craning over spreadsheets) bears this out.

Without further study, we shouldn't leap to grand conclusions. But we know this much: if we expect to gain four or five yards on every running play, we're going to be disappointed most of the time. No wonder passing totals have been creeping up for decades. If all a handoff gets you is two yards and a cloud of dust, you might as well throw the ball.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 10 Nov 2006

93 comments, Last at 10 Jul 2007, 4:15pm by DC Greg

Comments

1
by princeton73 (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 1:52pm

strikes me that these data would be heavily skewed (if not completely determined) by WHEN in the game the rushes occur, and whether the team is ahead or behind at the time

2
by Fnor (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 1:58pm

Kind of annoying, because I was hoping to write something similar (although more about frequency of big runs and what that tells us about different teams) this next off-season.

C'est la vie. Nice article.

3
by BDA (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 1:59pm

First!

4
by BDA (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 2:04pm

Ahhh, crimminy! Not first.

Terrific article! Very nice to see the actual distribution instead of just relying on the average. Well done!

However, it left me wanting more... more questions about if the distribution changes over the course of the game (eg, are certain teams or backs able to soften up defenses over the course of a game), what do the data look like for individual backs in exceptional years (e.g., Sean Alexander 2005, Priest Holmes 2002 or 2003, Jamal Lewis 2003, etc), yada, yada.

Keep up the good work!

Bruce

5
by jim's apple pie (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 2:12pm

Great article!

This is something that Charger fans are very familiar with. Before LT came along, most Charger drives could be characterized as "run-run-pass-punt." There was no originality and it was just too tough to pick up the long yardage on third down after two short gains. I think the most important thing for the offense is simply doing the opposite of what the defense is prepared for. With those late '90s Chargers teams, I could basically call out what the play was going to be before every snap. If I could do that correctly most of the time, and I was only a casual fan, than the other teams must have been laughing at the predictability of the Chargers offense.

Establish the pass!

6
by Eddie George (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 2:15pm

Hall of Fame, here I come!

7
by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 2:15pm

Too excellent for words.

I find that the average person, often misuses and misunderstands the term and concept of average. (TMQ might be one example.) You know the average person I mean, the one with 2.4 kids who has sex 2.7 times a week. "Honey, what do you mean this is our point-seven night? No way! Can't I skip the first part and just get to the final point-three? Oh I forgot, I'm Mister Average."

I ... I mean, the median person. No, make that the typical person. Oh look, something shiny!

8
by michael (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 2:16pm

Can you guys, I dunno, send this article to Easterbrook, the Network broadcast teams, and anybody you can Google who has ever used the phrase "teams must establish the run to win"?

Would be appreciated.

9
by MikeT (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 2:39pm

Fnor,

What's stopping you from writing your article? This is just a springboard, and there's probably all sorts of stuff about longer runs that I didn't even find as I was sorting thru this data.

10
by John P (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 2:43pm

Excellent article. Very interesting analysis of the nature of running plays. You are also quite right to warn against making grand conclusions, including your own that you state in the last two sentences. I have been very interested in the boom or bust versus steady producing running backs. I believe that having one or the other RB in the game completely changes the nature of the play, akin to the difference between a dive up the middle and a sweep. The growing running back by committee phenomena can be attributed to coaches recognizing that two types of runs succeed better with two types of runners. Rare is the modern running back that can utilize both styles of running, matching them to the right situations. Will we see a further increase in the size of the committee to include a blitz pickup specialist, along with the pass catching specialist, and short yardage specialists we already have?

WR of course have been a committee for years. The possession receiver is your steady producer, and the deep threat if your boom or bust guy. The modern game has had some new roles. There is the tall, big, postup, receiver used for goal line situations. He is like the short yardage specialist. There is also the punt returners, the short pass, shifty, little guy, who can break the big one. He is also a boom or bust guy.

Roles, roles, roles. As football science gets deeper and deeper, further specialization seems inevitable. What other roles might we see?

11
by jebmak (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 2:43pm

I enjoyed the article, it made me feel as though I learned something that should have been obvious to me a long time ago. (I don't know if that sounds positive, and that is because I'm not sure how I feel about that)

12
by Steve Sandvik (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 2:51pm

I think it would be interesting to split it up by schemes/coaching philosophies over time--especially where the same running back has been in different systems. We always hear how Denver could make anyone into a 1000 yard rusher, but this suggests pretty strongly that it matters a lot what *kind* of 1000 yard rusher you make them into. If Anderson posts similar numbers now that he's moved on, that might suggest that the Denver system is more about being able to use discarded line players on the cheap than something magical it does for running backs.

13
by ABW (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 2:56pm

Fascinating stuff. This kind of article is why I started reading FO.

Breaking this stuff down further based on game-charting data would be really interesting. Breaking out draw plays vs. power running out of two TE sets, for example. Are plays based on misdirection more boom-or-bust than power running? It seems like it from watching football, but you read an article like this and you realize that maybe your perceptions are wrong.

It also makes you realize how valuable those 4-6 yard runs are.

14
by Kavin (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:04pm

And suddenly, Andy Reid's playcalling starts to make sense.

15
by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:05pm

I agree with those wondering about how certain situations affect results. The 3d down back who will run draws some of the time on 3d and long should have a higher average per carry, but likely have a low success rate.

Second those expressing interest in separating out winning/losing and by how much how late in the game, etc.

I am not surprised by the overall conclusion. I do think that the 5 yard dink and dump on 1st down is far more valuable than many might. Charlie Wies seems to have understood this better than most in the NFL. Screens, flares, dump offs, etc. are effective on first down because they produce more yardage than the typical first down run.

16
by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:10pm

How possible would it be to discard runs not by running backs (end arounds, reverses, scrambles) from the data? Possibly there aren't enough of these plays to matter, possibly the conclusions hold true for all forms of rushing anyway, but it would be interesting to see if that made any difference.

Would also probably be no bad thing to regard draw plays as a separate category, but you couldn't do that from the play-by-play, obviously, so I imagine that really would be too much hassle. Also, not many of them are run on 1st and 10 in the first quarter.

17
by hoola (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:12pm

best anything ive read in a while. thank you.

18
by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:12pm

Oh, and what is the in-the-box mean for teams facing the 2006 Colts? Is there any situation in which it's advisable to call a pass against that team?

19
by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:14pm

This article is also interesting when you combine it with what we have seen with the Edge in AZ. For the last few years, the vast majority of his runs have been the Colts' unique zone stretch or draws. Now he is in a more traditional run offense and getting stuffed. Everyone is hammering him for being a big disappointment, but anyone who'd been paying attention should have known that his numbers were going to tank.

The athletes on defense in the NFL are so spectacular that smashing the ball right at them with any consistency is too difficult for all but a few teams. The Weis used screens and dinks to establish positive down and distance situations. Moore with the Colts used their unique outside zone.

Bottom line -- you have to get the ball carrier out in space to hope to get consistent success.

20
by Gerry (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:15pm

Just for giggles, I wanted to look at Brandon Jacobs YTD distribution. Keep in mind that he has several very short touchdown runs in his carries. Also keep in mind that I did this by hand and somehow ended up with one too many carries (probably a play wiped out by a penalty, so it was likely one of his bigger plays).

-2: 1 (2%)
-1: 3 (5%)
0: 3 (5%)
1: 5 (8%)
2: 9 (15%)
3: 9 (15%)
4: 2 (3%)
5: 3 (5%)
6: 6 (10%)
7: 2 (3%)
8: 5 (8%)
9: 4 (7%)
10: 0 (0%)
10+: 7 (12%)

That's a pretty astounding breakdown for a 'short yardage' back. Just as likely to get 10+ yards as he is to get stopped for a loss or no gain? Man.

21
by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:18pm

17,

Does this indicate that Dungy's using a moneyball type strategy makes sense? Since running is just too damn hard, run stuffers are overvalued. Defensive success is all about the pass.

(Goes back to the point that the obsession of every coaching staff on both sides of the ball is pass pro.)

22
by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:20pm

21,

Jacobs was a backup to Cadillac and Ronnie Brown at Auburn. Had he played somewhere else in college, we would have seen him put up huge numbers then and wouldn't be so surprised now.

23
by TracingError (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:21pm

Great article. It would be greater if you looked at a few more things, if only to reject them as uninfluential. First, what about penalties? -10 is a big loss that happens not infrequently on running plays. And the defense is almost never penalized on a running play. Second, what about turnovers, and what happens to them. It seems like interceptions are much more likely to generate big gains than fumbles (even discounting fumbled snaps).

Now, here's the big question. Are you guys actually right about the value of consistency vs. big play ability? This issue first came up for me as a Chicagoan (and Bears hater) when Neal Anderson supplanted Walter Payton. Anderson, it seemed, was stopped frequently for little yardage. But he seemed to bust long td runs almost every game, and the Bears offense seemed equally mediocre with either back. As has been pointed out, 4 yards per play is a march down the field. What gets lost (and is, I think rather tellingly, the goal in a lot of successful defensive strategies) is that a forty yard gain is "a bird in the hand" while a ten plays for forty yards is "in the bush," meaning you have to avoid penalties or turnovers or other mishaps ten times in a row in order to sustain such a drive. So how about doing something similar to the above but looking at scoring drives, particularly how the yardage is gained and how the scoring is done?

You could ask questions like how frequently does a drive gain 60 yards without a play of 20 yards or more or What's the average number of points scored on drives where a single play gained 15/20/25/40 yards and so forth.

24
by Gerry (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:24pm

Adding to my post, his four TD runs this year were 2 1-yarders, a 2-yarder, and a 3-yarder.

25
by Yuri33 (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:25pm

This was a quality article, with the author showing why statistical measures like the mean are almost irrelevent when the underlying distribution is not normal. He was careful to minimize his assumptions, he made conlcusions appropriate to the presented data without overstating them, and he correctly acknowledged the possible shortcomings. This is what a good analytical football article should look like. I especially appreciate how he systematically and correctly disassembled the "Madden truism" stating that you should run following an incomplete pass on first down to shorten the field for third down.

I wonder if numbers are presented this way to the running backs themselves, so that they don't psychologically shoot themselves in the foot by trying to grade each of their runs as a success or failure. As the authors states, it's certainly true that fans do. I find it frustrating to watch my friends assume that there is always a "solution" to any given down that would break the play wide open. This isn't Tecmo Bowl. You have to have the long view. (Peyton Manning might be the exception to this rule--he seems to find a "solution" on a large percentage of his passes, especially in the clutch)

The only critisism I can make (and this is nitpicking) is to turn those tables into histograms and\or box plots to more clearly show the distributions. I quickly plotted them out and it seems to me that something like a gamma distribution might be a more appropriate fit to the data. If that's the case, then the shape parameters might go a long way into determining the role that the running game should play in a particular offense.

26
by Gerry (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:27pm

More likely to get 8+ yards (15 or 16 plays) than to be kept to 2 yards or less (12 plays, including 3 where he was stopped by the end zone).

There is no way he could keep that up as a full time player. Still, it is fun to dream.

27
by the fumble (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:35pm

Fnor, I think you should write your story anyways, too.

It's probably better to use harmonic mean rather than arithmetic mean for yards/carry averages, no? Of course, you'd have to sort out all the pesky negative and zero yard runs and recombine them into one shiny number at the end, much more tedious than dividing Yards by Runs.

28
by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:36pm

22,

That (big play vs. consistency) would be a function of the rest of your offense. Look at Edge with the Colts. On the outside zone, he was a master of getting his pad level about knee high on the defenders (who were often too high with their pad level because they had to sprint to the edge; secondary couldn't support because of play action threat) and driving with power through a small crease. He consistently picked up the extra 1-3 yards on the end of the run. Often those were the only 1 to 3 yards gained on the run.

But this was precisely the complement that the Colts needed to their passing game. While they are the best in history at picking up 3d and long, 3d and 4 or 5 is still a lot easier. They don't need big plays from the run. They get plenty of big plays from their passing game. And that kind of skill really helps milk the clock at the end of games.

Now if you have a sputtering offense that struggles with inconsistency, one big run may be what you are looking for. But this is similar to the reason you want a Michael Vick as your QB on a poor to average team, but not on a good team trying to become great.

29
by Kachunk (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:37pm

Yeah, I'm with Yuri there, I'd really like to see those tables as graphs. I'd do it myself, but I just got a new computer, and I still don't have excel.

-Justin

30
by TBW (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:43pm

I keep thinking back to the passing premium article that was linked to a while back. We always see the Avg Yds per Passing Attempt, but what is the Median Yds per Passing Attempt ? I suspect the drop off is even bigger than we see for rushing, which might eliminate the whole question of why don't teams pass more.

Although, just to contradict myself, it seems like the whole point of the "West Coast Offense" is to maximize the median pass yds per play, rather than the average pass yards per play.

31
by Kevin Pelton (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:48pm

Great article, Mike.

I'm left wondering what the implications are for the success rate statistic, which requires four yards on first and 10, right?

Does this data change our view of that at all?

32
by Will (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 3:50pm

Great article. As someone already noted, the reason I come here for daily reading. I especially liked your use of Anderson and Bell, thereby probably eliminating any differences in offensive line play, and strengthening your argument tenfold. Too often people compare running backs without appreciating the effect of offensive line play.

33
by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 4:07pm

Yes, I think that using Anderson and Bell lends more weight to the argument than if you used, say, E. Smith and B. Sanders.

To a certain extent, using a simple mean is like many other simple statistics: it limits what you can learn because you're attempting to condense a lot of information into a single number. So it does make sense that 4.0 YPC isn't four yards on each carry ... like jebmak, I feel like I should have known this all along.

I'm all too familiar with the 2000 James Stewart. 3.5 YPC? A pink rabbit could do that. Even in NFL2K, he couldn't break long runs very often.

In some ways, along the lines of what Yuri said, this can also be seen in Madden/NCAA. If you have a team with a running game that gains two yards on first down (I never said I was that good), how often are you going to run on first down? When the other forces are removed from the equation (fan reaction, job security, players' expectations), you generally make the decision that has the highest expected reward. But it seems like in the NFL, you see the second-down-run (a staple of QB1 playcalling) because of the they'll-never-expect-the-run logic much more often than you should.

34
by JonL (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 4:11pm

This is great, if for no other reason than it recalled the James Stewart era.

35
by Kyle W (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 4:12pm

Are you planning on doing a version of this for wide receivers and the passing game too? Or are average yards per reception a valid stat?

36
by Josh (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 4:16pm

Great article. Consistently picking up decent and useful yardage is undervalued by most fans. Some of my fellow Jets fans' appraisals of Curtis Martin comes to mind. I often heard complaints along the lines of "sure, he's great at getting 4 yards, but he never breaks the really long runs." But picking up those 4 yard runs is not to be taken for granted, the ability to consistently do so is something special.

37
by Frick (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 4:18pm

Would it be possible to plot out the Colts D this year? The Denver game is a great example. Denver had a great average per rush, but included in that number are several long runs.

38
by Sean D. (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 4:20pm

30,

This data shouldn't change that. It simply implies that if teams want to be successful (get 4+ yards) on first down, they had better:
1. Pass
2. Run, but the defense expects them to pass
3. Have the rb/o-line talent to dominate the opposition (i.e. play the Colts)

39
by Fnor (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 4:32pm

MikeT,

I suppose nothing. I'll just have to think it through a bit more to make sure I don't spend time rehashing what you've already said.

Again, very nice article.

40
by Sophandros (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 4:32pm

I'm somewhat curious to see what Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister's charts look like so far this season.

Or Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood.

Come to think of it, how about a look at this season's RB committees?

41
by Kaveman (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 4:40pm

Excellent article. A followup that looks at rushing numbers over down and distance would be very good reading.

One of the most fascinating things about football is how everything is interdependent. Getting 2 yards on 1st and 10 might be just fine, if it gets a safety to come up some. An end around might only gain a yard, but if it makes an outside linebacker slower to pursue a running play, it opens a cutback lane for a future run.

"Keeping defenses honest" is a cliche too, but it is essential. One dimensional offenses tend to not work well.

42
by jake (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:00pm

This makes me thing Brandon Jacobs averaging around 5 yards a carry when he's used mostly in 3rd and 1 and goal line is even more amazing.

43
by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:09pm

40,

The "keep 'em honest" idea has a moneyball element. Is play action passing more effective than it should be? If so, is it because defenses worry about rushing yards more than is optimal and commit secondary support to stop a "threat" which is less than the pass threat they are enabling.

Why? Beyond the point that coaches and players tend to continue to embrace old axioms long after they are no longer true, there are other possible reasons. Having the ball pounded down your throat is far more debilitating emotionally for a defense than having a team pass the ball down the field for a score. (Also it takes a greater physical toll.) But the emotional is a big deal. Football players put a lot of stock in physical strength and toughness. No one wants to be dominated in the area of physical strength.

There is also a psychological aspect. Passing success can be attributed to luck. Or at least a defense feels like it may not have stopped the last 3 passes, but finding a way to defend the next three is a reasonable proposition.

Not so with running the ball. If the offense is gashing you repeatedly, it is because they are dominating you upfront. Sorta hard to say it is just luck. And if they do it regularly, it's hard to tell yourself that things are going to change.

So perhaps that accounts for an inordinate degree of defensive attention to stopping the run.

44
by princeton73 (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:09pm

in the immortal words of Ron Woolfley:

"I'm the kinda back, you need 2 yards? I'll get you 2 yards--you need 4 yarsd? I'll get you 2 yards"

45
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:12pm

Oh, great, now this means I won't have to spend my weekend trying to figure out where it was I saw a breakdown of runs by yardage. Now, I can go straight to my little project of figuring out just how the Titans RBs have done this year (see #39). Watch this thread for results, or a link thereto.

46
by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:13pm

#36 Frick, Denver also got stuffed a lot. So your question is a good one. Indy has this "gift" for stuffing two plays, then letting up on a 15 yarder. I have to wipe spittle off my TV four-five times a game, and I DON'T watch with Bill Cowher next to me.

This article makes me think of Barry Sanders and the Lions lack of success while one of the greatest ever was there. Without going into depth or specifics, my impression is that he used to have a lot of -2 to 2 yard runs because of all his juking and direction changing behind the LOS, then he'd break a bunch of 10-15 yarders. He has a good career average, but I bet a low success rate.

And regarding Edge, I believe he was taken for granted in this regard: After he left, Kravitz or one of the other Indy Star sports writers snarkily noted that (I'm paraphrasing): "There was nobody like him who could turn a 1-yard loss into a four-yard gain. Unfortunately, there was also nobody like him who could turn a 20-yard gain into a four-yard gain." Then again, Indy always seems to lead the league in Success Rate, James or Addai. Looks like Polian knew what he was doing.

Thanks, FO, for inventing (or at least introducing us to) Success Rate.

47
by Richard (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:35pm

For Charger runningbacks, click my name.

That Turner sure likes the 11+ yard runs...

48
by Richard (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:37pm

For Chargers runningbacks, click my name.

11+ Yards for Turner is pretty damn common.

49
by sicksock (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:39pm

Great stuff. It's no wonder that I'm starting to hear Football Outsiders mentioned more and more on sports talk shows.

50
by Richard (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:41pm

Damn! Both posts ended up going through... Damn!

51
by Mike (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:45pm

I'd like to see this set up to Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. It seems to touch their styles of running nicely. TOo much of the data before the DVOA era?

52
by chris clark (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 5:47pm

re 30, 14:

Considering 30, if the data is clustered as the article's samples suggest, then making the cut-off point for a successful play be 2 yards on 1st down, might be better.

However, considering 14, one might want to relook at the data counting only succssful series, ie. where the 4 plays ended in either a 1st down or a score.
I'd be real curious to see what that data looks like only for "sucessful" series. Perhaps, these short runs are counting too many drives where the team simply isn't performing. So what, if the median (or mode) running play is 2 yards on drives where the drive stalls. We're really interested in drives that are successful. If on successful drives, we still have a lower median run length, then it is arguable, that this shorter length ought to be the cut-off point for a successful run play.

Who can clue me in on how to get the data (i.e. the play-by-play info with the yards, just as the DVOA stats are generated from, presuming that the data is available) to make this argument? Presuming I can spare some cycles for doing so....

53
by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 6:07pm

Richard,
Any truth to the rumor that M Turner asks the offense to lose yardage on 1st down so he can go in and rip off 11+ gains? Or does it hardly matter what the down and distance is for him?

I ask this as Colt fan, who was burned by his damn 80 yard run on 2nd and 10 in the fourth quarter of a 3-point game last year, effectively putting it out of reach.

Damn you straight to heck, Michael Turner!

54
by Andrew Foland (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 6:09pm

I've been waiting about five years for the day that football statisticians discovered the RMS.

It's finally here.

55
by turbohapy (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 6:17pm

Re: 46 (Colts success rate)

I think the design of their runs have something to do with it, but a lot of it has to do with the runners they draft. Rhodes success rate isn't really all that good. Watching him this season, Addai reminds me of Marshall Faulk (not Edge).

56
by turbohapy (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 6:19pm

Awesome article! This really validates what I (and I'm sure lots of other fans) already sort of knew at a visceral level but didn't totally understand. I've always sort of expected the RB to get 3 yards on a typical rush.

57
by John Gach (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 6:35pm

Mike Tanier wrote: "Teams don’t generate rushing yards in three-, four-, or five-yard bursts. They gain it through punctuated equilibrium, waiting through dozens of minimal gains for a few big plays per game." It's a shame Stephen Jay Gould isn't around to see his term used correctly in a football context.

Tanier's description may hold in general, but not for this year's Ravens, whose running attack is "led" by Jamal Lewis's nonmetaphorical three yards and a cloud of dust. Lacking his earlier speed and quickness, Lewis is now a 3-yard running back without the long runs to pad his YPC. That two better running backs are sitting on the bench (Mike Anderson and Musa Smith) won't matter to Billick, unless Lewis sustains an injury.

Even so, however, it has struck me in the past two games that there has been something weirdly effective about the Ravens' seemingly ineffective running game. Given a lead, their defense, and Billick's definitely superior-to-Fassel play-calling, the Ravens have been very successful in "taking the air out of the ball," in grinding out first downs without getting lots of yardage, and thus in shortening the game and giving the opponent both a longer field and fewer opportunities to score. 80 yard drives against the Ravens defense are improbable events (though 80 yard passes, given the gambling in their secondary, aren't so unlikely, especially when the defense gets too big a lead and the DBs seem to get bored).

After reading Tanier's essay, I think I may now understand why the Ravens' ground game may be making more of a contribution than the raw stats alone might suggest. Of course, it helps greatly to have a QB who can either pass or run for the first down after Lewis has gained four or five yards in two carries. My impressionistic guess is that Lewis rarely generates negative yardage. He does get stuffed a lot these days, but the more likely outcome of a Lewis run is ... a 2-3 yard gain.

Has Billick been reading FO? "Teams pass to run" is an FO mantra. What did the Ravens do in their first possession against Cincy after recovering the opening fumble? They threw the ball right down the field and then ran Jamal Lewis twice inside the five for the TD.

One wonders if this might not be the perfect team to match up with Indy: get the lead and play keep-away.

58
by Alex (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 6:43pm

Would it be possible to include median yards/carry along with the other statistics (DVOA,DPAR,Success Rate) for running backs?

59
by Tom (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 7:01pm

I haven't read every post, but to those of you that are arguing a against establishing the run are ignoring a lot of factors. 1) A teams rushing average tends to go up with the more times they give their back the ball (except the Cardinals). 2) Running the ball sets up playaction. 3) Running the ball keeps the clock running. 4) Running the ball lets your offensive players do some hitting instead of always having be hit.

There are some more, but I can't think of them now.

Oh, and getting 2 yards is still better than 0 from an incomplete pass.

60
by doktarr (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 7:03pm

Great article. This is what FO is all about.

One suggestion I would have would be, rather than doing "in the box" averages, do it like line yards, where all 10+ yard runs are truncated to 10 yards.

61
by TonyFranklin (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 7:05pm

Excellent article. Also opens up plenty of other questions for analysis. I'm also drooling about seeing the Emmitt and Barry distributions.

62
by Mnotr (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 7:07pm

This is why I pass the ball almost exclusively in Madden!

63
by stan (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 7:48pm

59,

I'm not arguing that teams should never run. I am arguing that teams should be smarter about when, where and how they run. I do think the Colts are a good example to follow, especially given the well-documented weakness of their offensive line in the run game.

There have been games in years past where the Colts used the play-action fake more often than they actually ran the ball (seemingly two or three times more often). As if they knowingly chose to run for little or no gain just often enough to encourage the defense to continue coming up to stuff them -- so they could pass.

And they run in a manner which puts the defense in a bind (forcing defenders out of their normal positions). And which meshes extremely well with their play action passing game.

This in contrast with teams which simply hand it off up inside depending on the offensive line to blast open a hole against superior athletes. Compare the type of plays AZ uses for Edge this year with the type of plays Indy used him on in the past.

64
by Larry (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 7:48pm

Let me echo the desire to see pdf's as graphs, rather than tables. You could add a vertical line for the median value as well to give a nice easily absorbable visualization.

That said, this is absolutely fantastic stuff, the reason I come here. I read and then end up knowing more than I did before.

65
by Yaguar (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 7:54pm

Michael Turner is as likely to break 11+ yards as he is to be stopped for no gain or lose yardage. Sweet.

I think it's fairly obvious that most runs are unproductive relative to passes. But it's so much less risky than passing, especially if you have a polished back. Curtis Martin in 2004 gained 4.6 yards a carry, which is solid. He fumbled only twice, on 371 carries. We'll call that one turnover, even though both fumbles were recovered by the Jets.

Chad Pennington, who, like Martin, is careful with the football, also had about 370 attempts passing in the same year. He had five fumbles and nine interceptions. We'll call that 11.5 turnovers. And that doesn't even count fumbles by receivers.

Passing can easily make turnovers ten times more likely. If you've got Manning or McNabb, sure, go ahead, get pass-wacky, but I think every Bills fan feels much safer when the ball's in the hands of McGahee, not Losman.

66
by Jon Coit (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 8:12pm

I agree with the many of you smacking your own foreheads. Just wanted to add this:

I can't remember how many times I've heard sports-yak mention that a large # of offensive plays in the NFL do not work out how they are drawn up, i.e. the hole isn't at the POA of a run, primary receiver isn't open etc. One of the coaches at this past year's senior bowl gave this number: 70%!!!

This great article makes it all make sense--we are looking at how often an RB can get 2-3 yards out of busted plays, and do it consistently. Ouch.

67
by robbbbbb (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 8:37pm

Question: Where can a person find distribution data like this? I'd like to know what the distributions of yards are for run and pass attempts. Anyone have an idea where such data might be found?

68
by Trogdor (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 9:00pm

"This skewing always increases rushing averages: there are several 50+ yard rushes every year, but no 50+ yard losses on running plays."

Well, not until the Raiders, in a final desperate act, convert Aaron Brooks to running back.

69
by MikeT (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 9:40pm

I'll probably put together some kind of update on this article and either stick it on the FOX blog or use it as extra material on a TDZ that runs short.

As for tables, I think they would look cool too, but that is beyond my technical ability. I can barely make play diagrams. Although I guess Excel has a histogram maker in the graphing tools.

70
by Gary (not verified) :: Fri, 11/10/2006 - 10:24pm

Let me join in the chorus asking for the Emmitt v. Barry breakdown. I have long maintained that Sanders must have the NFL record for runs of negative yardage--anyone else that got tackled behind the line that often wouldn't be able to give you five or six 80 yard TD runs a year and would not have lasted in the NFL very long.

71
by Vince (not verified) :: Sat, 11/11/2006 - 12:00am

AWESOME article. Just fantastic.

It occurs to me you could rate runners by how often, carry by carry, an "average" back would have picked up more or less yards.

And to resay what has been said: A great passer will gain 0 yards or less about thirty percent of the time.

72
by hector (not verified) :: Sat, 11/11/2006 - 6:12am

A very interesting, thought provoking article. Well done. It brought me back to memories of the old Bengals in the early Dillon years (not his rookie season), where they would run-run-punt their way into a 14-0 hole and wonder what the hell happened.

I am very curious as to how much more successful teams are when they run late in games. I also wonder how much No. 2 backs are helped by working against tired defensive fronts, while the starting back had the burden of trying to run early. It must get easier to run as a game goes along, most of the time, yes?

73
by grailsearch (not verified) :: Sat, 11/11/2006 - 8:06am

In a recent column, Foxsports.com's Adam Schein pointed to the Colts run defense as the reason they lost in the playoffs last year, despite the fact that the Steelers were very pass-heavy in the half they dominated, and run-heavy in the one that nearly ended in an epic choke.
This article points out the reason Indianapolis has been the best regular season team in recent memory (in addition to the perpetually easy schedule). FO often points out that offense is more consistent year-to-year than defense, and pass offense is more important than run offense.
This column has an interesting corollary in terms of schedule strength. The disparity in the difficulty of schedule for NFC East teams and AFC West teams and the rest of the NFL is understated because it's averaged. When you're playing only 16 games, it's not your average SOS that matters, but the number of coin flip games you will have to play. Even a one game difference is huge.
(FO can go ahead and project the Chiefs at 11-5 and the Jaguars at 10-6. There's no way the Chiefs lose that game in Arrowhead. Of course, the way David "Just Wins" Garrard manages a game . . .)

74
by wyote (not verified) :: Sat, 11/11/2006 - 10:03am

Great analysis. As an Eagles fan--maybe you know how Andy Reid is perceived in Philadelphia--this is fascinating information.

I want to know if there's a correlation between run/pass ratio (adjusting for game score) and success rate or offensive DVOA? IOW--Is there such a thing as running too little? How much do you have to run to be successful?

75
by PackerNation (not verified) :: Sat, 11/11/2006 - 12:02pm

This was a great analysis. I'm going to copy it to my blog so I can refer back to it whenever I want.

It seems to dovetail nicely with an article at this site a few weeks ago that said that basically coaches should be passing more since the pass/run ratio has remained unchanged for decades while teams have learned to pass the ball better.

Four yards/rush has always seemed reasonable to me but you've shown that most runs never reach that level....it's about big runs. Conversely, the "cloud of dust" back is more valuable.

Personally, I think that being able to rush for two yards when you absolutely, positively need two yards is probably the mark of a very good offense.

76
by Paul (not verified) :: Sat, 11/11/2006 - 3:11pm

In Madden, I am screens, slants and run, run, run (mostly sweeps and off tackles, but a lot of slams too). Sure I lose yards, occasionally on runs, but I have a large percentage of big plays on runs and the majority are in the 4-7 range. More like the college game than NFL. And given the drop rate in Madden, 4 is better than 0 yards on an incompletion. Not recommended on All-Madden, but definitely on All-Pro.

77
by Vince (not verified) :: Sat, 11/11/2006 - 4:00pm

Just for fun, here are Michael Vick's numbers (please excuse horrible formatting):

-4 0.014
-3 0.000
-2 0.000
-1 0.043
0 0.000
1 0.087
2 0.101
3 0.072
4 0.043
5 0.058
6 0.072
7 0.029
8 0.058
9 0.014
10 0.043

In-the-box average: 3.977

Percentage of plays gaining 10-plus yards: 33.3%. (Yes, one out of three rushes, including kneeldowns, gains 10 yards or more. He's fast.)

78
by mediator12 (not verified) :: Sat, 11/11/2006 - 4:11pm

The style of the plays that Anderson and Bell ran last year were not that similar, even though the OL was the same. That has to be taken into account when comparing distributions even among the same OL RB's.

Anderson ran the inside and outside Zone almost exclusively with a few inside counter plays. He had three POA's on these runs not just one like conventioanl running plays. Easily, these were the strength of the way DEN's OL is set up to run the ball.

Tatum Bell ran more conventional plays and was nowhere near as good as finding the lanes and attacking the small gaps to get the extra two yards as anderson was on those Zone plays. Anderson was easily the superior zone play runner in DEN.

What Tatum Bell did do, and continues to do when healthy is attack the edges and force the weakside DE's to choose to stop the run or contain the bootleg. He was awesome last year on the counter pitch play as the DE's were so afraid of his big play ability they left their containment and let Plummer outside the pocket to do what he does best. He was also getting better with his vision and finding the cutback lanes until his turf toe stopped letting him plant and cut at full speed.

It would also be interesting to compare Clinton Portis distribution from DEN to WAS.

Side note to Colts fans:

Tatum Bell took himself out of the game as the starter when he could not make the Necessary cuts to exploit the lanes in the zone. He fell five times trying to cut in that game and Mike Bell fell twice too. Those were seven of the eight stuffed runs the Colts defense mustered in that game. There were lanes available in the first half, Tatum just could not physically get there with his feet and should have come out earlier than he did.

It is beyond me how the PAT's did not run the ball a lot more against the Colts even with Sanders supporting the run Better.

79
by Andrew (not verified) :: Sat, 11/11/2006 - 4:37pm

Here's Brian Westbrook's numbers for 2004, including the playoffs - 221 rushes, 1000 yards.

-6 0.45%
-5 0.45%
-4 0.45%
-3 5.43%
-2 4.52%
-1 4.52%
0 9.95%
1 9.95%
2 8.14%
3 8.60%
4 9.95%
5 5.88%
6 6.79%
7 2.71%
8 4.52%
9 4.07%
10 0.90%
11 1.81%
12 3.17%
13 1.81%
14 0.45%
15 0.45%
16 0.45%
17 0.00%
18 0.45%
19 0.00%
20 0.45%
21 0.90%
22 0.90%
23 0.45%
24+ 1.35%

The 24+ plays consisted of a 36, 42, and 50 yard run.

11+ is 12.67%

Roughly, Westbrook divides into 25% of plays were 0 yards or a loss, 25% were 1-3 yards, 25% were 4-7 yards, and 25% were 8+ yards.

Westbrook lost -81 yards on the first 25%, gained 115 yards on the next 25%, gained 285 yards on the next 25%, and gained 681 yards on the final 25%. That means almost 70% of his yardage came on 25% of his plays! His 9 runs of 20 yards or more were 257 of his total yards - 25% of his yards on 4% of his plays.

Andy Reid tended to give Westbrook about 14 runs per game in 2004, the expectation was that at least one of these would break out for 15 or so yards.

Westbrook's in the box mean for 2004 was 2.68 yards. His mean of 11+ yard runs was 13 yards, but his average on those runs was 17.86 yards.

80
by Vince (not verified) :: Sat, 11/11/2006 - 10:25pm

Roughly, Westbrook divides into 25% of plays were 0 yards or a loss, 25% were 1-3 yards, 25% were 4-7 yards, and 25% were 8+ yards.

I like this way of measuring a player's distribution: Sort his carries by yards gained, and find the average for each group.

Since I've got Vick's numbers handy, they look like this:

First 25%: -0.17 yards per carry.
Second 25%: 4.05 yards per carry.
Third 25%: 9.11 yards per carry.
Fourth 25%: 19.33 yards per carry.

That's 17 carries in each of the first three groups, 18 in the last.

This is pretty easy to do with info at footballguys.com; click on "Players," and go to play-by-play, copy and paste into Excel and enjoy. However, it looks like only the QBs are available for free.

81
by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Sun, 11/12/2006 - 12:38am

Outstanding analysis--medians rule! One nitpick, in a losing cause. The word "data" is plural. The old saying when I was editing statistical reports was "'Data' isn't 'is.' Data are." I realize that the "data is" usage is common and, in a couple of decades, "data are" will sound about as archaic as "thou art a running back" does now, but I'm old-fashioned enough to like the sound of it.

82
by RecoveringPackerFan (not verified) :: Sun, 11/12/2006 - 12:49am

This would obviously need the charting data, but it would be interesting to see yardage breakdowns by personnel package. Do power packages really help in grinding out short yardage, and does spreading the field give more long gains would seem like the main questions.

83
by Bobman (not verified) :: Sun, 11/12/2006 - 3:00am

young curmudgeon: Plural of stadium: stadia or stadiums?

I made the mistake once in a report at work of pluralizing it as if it were Latin, and my boss did not even recognize that "stadia" might have been a word. He literally did not know what I was trying to say, so I changed it. I AM able to get away with "the data do not support X" but not much else.

Oh well. For sooth, methinks I dost fight a losing battle.

84
by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Sun, 11/12/2006 - 10:26am

Bobman, verily thou art a gentilleman of discernment and taste. I've actually used "stadia" and gotten some entertaining blank stares, too! As we've agreed, I think we're going to lose on "data," but it's too bad.

On the other hand, I had a great time at the last monthly meeting of Grammar Nerds Anonymous.

85
by noah of the ark (not verified) :: Mon, 11/13/2006 - 2:03am

Does this mean FO's definition of a "successful play" must be revised? After all, if most rushing plays gain only 2 or 3 yards, it's unrealistic to define a successful run as a 4 or 5 yard carry...

86
by Peter Libero (not verified) :: Mon, 11/13/2006 - 3:55am

I guess nobody (Including Mike?) remembers the mailbag from this summer that addressed this exact same comparison? Aaron even made the graphs of Bell and Anderson that everybody was looking for. I didn't like them that much because they underemphasized how outlying the 40+ runs were, but they did show the losses to 5 yard gains well.

At the time I argued that this was a problem I saw with DVOA, that big plays were insufficiently rewarded because they effectively made entire drives into successes rather than just plays. As an anecdotal example, the Steelers won the Superbowl on basically two big plays; I wildly and unfoundedly speculate that most of the time that a team wins with worse DVOA it is because of big plays that don't count for enough.

This article sort of does the same thing... why are we talking about "in the box" runs? I think it's obvious that all of these tables will penalize runners who get more of their yards from long runs. Why are we especially interested in runners who don't get over 10 yards very often? This is a distortion of the results, not a simplification or a helpful analysis. I mean I understand the urge to remove outliers, but those runs weren't BAD, and I think they are an indicator of the runner's talent.

If you want a better idea of the runner's typical carries, real graphs (to scale, not grouped, as even the mailbag ones were) would be nice, or an analysis that removes a chunk from the top AND bottom. Do a big piece, but enough to cut out the truly exceptional plays... middle 80%, maybe.

If it really is basically impossible to consistently run for gains that will collect first downs, as the data suggests, shouldn't we ONLY want "boom-or-bust" runners to threaten big plays as alternatives to passing?

87
by Vince (not verified) :: Mon, 11/13/2006 - 5:27am

#85: No, because the definition of "successful play" is set to conform with which teams actually win football games. This study just shows that offenses fail more often than we thought, and also more often then they succeed. That lattter part is also true in baseball, but they have not changed the definition of a hit.

88
by Mr.X (not verified) :: Mon, 11/13/2006 - 12:26pm

88th!

89
by hector (not verified) :: Mon, 11/13/2006 - 1:09pm

I'm still trying to figure out if No. 2 guys like Marion Barber are as good as they look in the fourth quarter, or if it's a result of a good (and fresh) back taking advantage of ideal running situations (working against a tired defensive front).

90
by Spyker (not verified) :: Mon, 11/13/2006 - 5:11pm

It's a good start for an article, but there are just so many unaccountable variables which cannot be ignored. Some examples:

1. Can not account for a QB or OL missing a read, sending a RB right into the teeth of a run blitz or unblocked end.

2. Game situation is absolutely integral to determining success of running. A 2-yard loss on 2nd and 10 in the 2nd quarter of a tie game is worse than a 6-yard scamper on 2nd and 8 when down by 10 in the 4th. Field position also matters, as does down/distance. I'd rather have my RB get a 2-yard run on 1st down from his own 4 than get a 13-yard run on 3rd and 15 (say hello Chester Taylor!) at his own 45.

3, It appears to ignore the relative strength of the opposing run defense. As we've all seen, it's easier to get 6 yards running at the Colts than it is to get 4 against the Vikings. Yet I'd consider a 4.5 YPC average against the Vikings a much more successful day than a 6.5 YPC day against the Colts or Jets.

4. Some teams use runs as loss-leaders for their passing game. The Lions and Texans come to mind. Their purpose in rushing the ball is more to hold the LB or S for a beat than it is to pick up yardage, or to give the WRs a breather play or throw a bone to the OL sick of absorbing contact instead of dishing it out. Anyone who has ever played offense in a pass-heavy system will tell you that.

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by Mikey Benny (not verified) :: Mon, 11/13/2006 - 11:08pm

Great article; two words: Willie Parker.

92
by Sophandros (not verified) :: Sat, 11/18/2006 - 10:26pm

Four yards should still be the standard for "success" because it's like getting on base in baseball. Interesting enough, the percentage of runs which are four or more yards is about 33%, which is about the on-base percentage average, I believe.

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by DC Greg (not verified) :: Tue, 07/10/2007 - 4:15pm

I've always wondered why offensive lineman didn't fire out (like on a running play) on passing plays as well. Why not take the attitude that "run or pass, we're gonna hit you anyway?" That way you'd achieve the goal of wearing down the defense while gaining positive yardage. There's probably a reasonable explanation for it, much like the reason why you can't run the triple option in the NFL, but I haven't heard it yet. Anyone got any ideas?