Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?
07 Jun 2012
by Mike Tanier
Has anyone seen Reggie Bush since the Miami Zombie Bath Salts Apocalypse incident?
The incident occurred at roughly the same time as Dolphins OTAs, which Bush mysteriously skipped. He was probably miffed about something, but there is a slim, disturbing, chance that he is naked and faceless. There have been Tweets, but the guy who allegedly hacked Jabar Gaffney’s Twitter account in April might have taken over Bush’s. Silly, self-serving ramblings; who could tell the difference? This is how the Miami Zombie Apocalypse ends: Bush tries to eat Kardashian flesh and chokes on the maintenance-free vinyl siding.
Jeff Ireland is safe from the Miami Zombie Apocalypse. He cannot schedule a face-to-face meeting with anybody. The CDC assures us that there is no Zombie Apocalypse, which is exactly what they say at the beginning of every zombie movie, and why believe them when your niece disagrees on Facebook? The CDC assurance included several rude allegations against Lito Sheppard, so the guy who hacked Gaffney’s account may just be really busy.
Someone asked me recently, in a professional setting, how to write in a funny way. What an incredible ego boost it was until I realized I had nothing but stupid answers. The right answer to that question, like the right comeback or the right joke, usually arrives three days late. That’s why the fastest bloggers are rarely the funniest bloggers, and vice versa.
The funny thing about an event is rarely the most obvious thing. You have to move sideways away from the incident. Zombie jokes were obvious and ubiquitous in the wake of the face-munching story. They weren’t funny. Move laterally, into the Miami sports scene, and yoke Bush to the plow, and you have the chance to be funny.
But Bush jokes are hackneyed. In fact, Bush, Kardashian, and zombie jokes are all hackneyed. Bungee them all together, toss them into the room, and run: maybe you have a chance at a laugh. Change the subject fast by marshalling Gaffney and Ireland to the cause. The Ireland gag arrives two weeks late, but it has good laterality, juxtaposing bleak comedy about a wayward soul and his hopelessly addled brain with a story about a druggie who ate another guy’s face.
Move fast when trying to be funny. Establish a rhythm. Grammar and diction are your best friends. Grammar and diction rules are your worst enemies. Fragments: grammar’s smoldering roach clips. A sentence can be funny if it ends in an avalanche of penises. Put those penises in the wrong place and the results can be painful. Referential humor can grow boring; it is easy to Admiral Akbar your way into trouble. Never telegraph a reference. Pickle it. Assume your reader is coming with you, not following you. When referencing something well-referenced, like Star Wars or The Simpsons, it is best to travel to Wilmington and let your readers visit the screen door factory.
That’s how you write funny, I think. And when all else fails, make fun of Reggie Bush.
When not hammering away at Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, which will be available in a few weeks, I am preparing to embark on another New York Sports Odyssey for The New York Times
This year’s schedule is better than last year’s. There will be a Stanley Cup hockey game. There is a chance at a Triple Crown. There is some track and some on-television events, like the Pacquiao-Bradley fight, which I will watch at Jack Dempsey’s in Manhattan before crawling into hotel slumber. There will also be a Strat-o-Matic baseball marathon at Foley’s Pub on 33rd Street, and I plan on stopping there around noon.
Yes, yes, some of these things are not sports, or are limited-interest sports. But there are a lot of them, and I will be writing a lot about them, all day at The Times on Saturday. Stop by. Leave some encouragement on the message board. If you are in or around New York, look for me. I will be the nerdy middle aged guy who appears giddy and sleep deprived but who isn’t playing Strat-o-Matic baseball in a bar.
1. O.J. Simpson
One of the biggest differences between the rushing records of old-time running backs (using the term loosely, say, up to the 1982 strike) and modern backs is the amount of hang-around yardage the modern back accumulates.
Emmitt Smith, as amazing as he was in his prime, stopped being an excellent running back around 1996 and stopped being a good one by 2001. His rushing record contains somewhere between 3,000 and 9,000 yards of padding, depending on how generous you are with the concept.
LaDainian Tomlinson’s hang-around period starts in 2008. Four years may not seem like a long time, but Tomlinson gained 3,034 yards and scored 30 rushing touchdowns during his wind down phase.
Not all modern careers fit this trend. Curtis Martin is all over the place, for example. Jerome Bettis had a four-year wind down of 2,700 rushing yards and 38 rushing touchdowns. Marshall Faulk had a long wind-down. Some earlier backs, like Franco Harris, had long hang-around periods as well. But if you look at earlier backs, you will often find a clear demarcation line where they just cannot cut it anymore, then two or three seasons in which they total around 1,000 yards before calling it quits.
Simpson had an excellent 1976 season, then missed half of 1977, then was all but finished. His "wind down" was three years of 1,610 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Thurman Thomas is one of the all-time hang around champs. DVOA started hitting him with negative values in 1993, when his yards per carry dipped from 4.8 to 3.7 and he stopped leading the league in scrimmage yardage. He remained a negative-DVOA rusher (with slightly better receiving numbers) from 1994 through 1996, years in which he barely crossed the 1,000-yard mark. Then, he spent four more seasons as a bit player, the last one for the Dolphins. Giving the benefit of the doubt for 1993, he started for four seasons and racked up over 4,000 rushing yards long after his period of greatness.
Hang-around yardage increased for a bunch of reasons you can probably list yourself, but I am getting paid to do it. Medical and training procedures improved, so meatball knee surgery no longer guaranteed that a running back would lose one step of speed and lots of cutting ability. Offensive levels changed in 1978, and the schedule itself changed, so a 300-yard hang-around year in 1976 became more of a 600-yard year in 1997. Offensive styles changed as well. A 1960s or 1970s running back on the decline became part of a two-back offense or three-back committee: the other backs took over, and the production plummeted. Thomas shared carries more often than other great backs of his generation, but there was still a binary factor to being a featured back in his era: it was either 280 carries or a bench role. That may be changing again.
The trick to hang-around value is knowing when and if to lop it off when making a comparison. Simpson and Thomas had comparable peaks. Simpson was the best running back in the NFL from 1972 to 1976, leading the league in yards from scrimmage three times, among his other feats. Thomas led the league in yards from scrimmage four times and was the second-to-fourth best running back in the NFL from 1989 to 1993. Simpson was a one-man gang, Thomas part of one of the best offenses in his era. The peaks are close, but the edge goes to Simpson.
In terms of career value, I don’t want to erase 1994 and beyond, but when comparing all-time greats you have to be a little cruel. Thomas just wasn’t doing much to move the needle on the Hall of Famer scale after 1994. The hang-around phenomenon is a double-edged sword for modern backs. On the one hand, they get paid an extra few years, which is a big deal, and they get to rack up all-time yardage. On the flip side, they create a big mental barrier between their best seasons and their retirement. Great modern backs help their teams and provide moments of excitement during their wind-down years, but they are doing something most 1960s and 1970s backs never got a chance to do. That should not be held against the early backs.
And the fact that one of these guys murdered his wife is relevant on just about every element of life except a listing of the top running backs in a team’s history.
3. Joe Cribbs
Cribbs had four fine seasons with the Bills, then bolted for the USFL. He had two 1,000-yard seasons for the Birmingham Stallions, then returned to the Bills in 1985 when the writing on the USFL wall was glowing neon. He returned to the NFL after a summer USFL season and was, not surprisingly, tanked.
Cribbs, William Andrews, Billy Sims, and Wilbert Montgomery were all great backs in the brief era between the 1978 rule change and the 1982 strike whose careers fizzled because of injuries, the strike, the USFL, and other oddities. There are probably other backs in that category. Earl Campbell was the king of them, but he is a category unto himself.
4. Fred Jackson
The Bills have spent Jackson’s whole career trying to replace him. They finally figured out how good he is now that he is 31. It is not clear what impact Jackson’s long career in the football hinterlands will have on his aging curve; I’ve walked on some of those minor league surfaces, and I am not sure I would let my kids play rough-touch on them. Another year or two hovering around 1,000 yards, with some receiving value, and he will push past Cribbs.
5. Jim Braxton
Braxton was Simpson’s fullback for the glory years. It was not unusual for Braxton to rush more often than the Bills quarterback threw.
Braxton was injured for the first half of Simpson’s 2,000-yard 1973 season, but when he returned he was the second option in the Bills offense. In one victory over the Falcons, Simpson carried 24 times for 137 yards while Braxton provided 23 rushes for 80 yards and two scores; Joe Ferguson completed 7-of-12 passes on the day. Braxton provided 24 attempts, 98 yards and two touchdowns to Simpson’s 34 carries, 200 yards, and a score in the season finale, a game in which the Bills were feeding Simpson the ball to crack 2,000 yards. Ferguson threw just five passes. You get the picture: Braxton as a "key breaker" was a huge part of Simpson’s success, and his blocking was also a factor.
Braxton gets the nod over lots of recent guys who had a few 1,000-yard seasons but clear holes in their games: Willis McGahee, Travis Henry, Marshawn Lynch, Antowain Smith. Henry ranks fourth on the Bills all-time rushing list because of a 1,438-yard 2002 season, but that season earned negative DVOA because of Henry’s 11 fumbles. There is not much else to recommend these recent players from one another, which is a good sign that the fifth spot belongs to a very useful fullback.
1. Larry Csonka
Speaking of "hang around" value: Csonka played three seasons with the Giants after his peak, grinding out 1,344 forgettable yards. He then returned to the Dolphins and had a fine final season: 220 carries, 837 yards, and 12 touchdowns in a 16-game season. The mid-70s Giants were putrid, the Dolphins usually great, and Csonka would have had a few more 700-800 yard seasons had he not defected to the World Football League, then got trapped with the Giants.
At his peak, though, Csonka was much better than that, gaining 1,000 yards as the leader of a committee backfield, averaging 4.5-5.4 yards per carry up the gut, and providing a wisp of receiving value in his early years.
2. Tony Nathan
The Dolphins list after Csonka is incredibly muddy. Given the choice between Csonka’s teammates and the Wildcat gang, I am calling a screen pass to Nathan. Nathan spent most of his career sharing carries with fullbacks like Andra Franklin and Woody Bennett. The fullbacks gained a few more rushing yards and scored more touchdowns, while Nathan pitched in 450-650 receiving yards in his best seasons, to the fullbacks’ nearly zero.
Nathan was productive during the WoodStrock era, then stuck around as Dan Marino’s safety valve for the "holy cow" years. In 1985, he led the Dolphins in both rushing and receptions. His yards-per-carry hovered in the 4.7 range. That was inflated quite a bit by lots of draw plays and no short-yardage carries, but it was still productive yardage. He was a very good back for a long time.
3. Mercury Morris
Morris had very good yards-per-carry numbers, was an excellent return man, and was outstanding in 1972 and 1973, for historic teams. On the downside, he had no receiving value, was part of a three-headed backfield that was so good that it is hard to evaluate the constituent parts, and piddled his career away on drugs.
4. Jim Kiick
Most people would rank Kiick ahead of Morris. It is a tricky call. He had AFL Pro Bowl seasons in 1968 and 1969, before the Dolphins became great and before the merger. They aren’t eye-popping seasons. He was the best receiver out of the backfield for the Super Bowl Dolphins, but by the glory years he had ceded many of his other tasks to Csonka and Morris.
If we put Csonka, Morris, and Kiick on three separate teams, we might have three players with multiple 1,000-yard seasons. But then, we might not. Morris was going to get high one way or the other. Kiick would have had some great numbers from 1968 through about 1972, but late in his career, he was a 276-yard rusher, and it is hard to project that into superstardom. There is no good, right answer for placing these players in order, except to put Csonka on top.
Williams would rank second, third, or fourth if DVOA did not despise his 2003 season, giving him negative -13.5% value and negative DYAR despite 1,372 rushing yards. DVOA was lukewarm about Williams’ 1,800-yard 2002 season (253 DYAR is nothing special for all that effort), and our stats are mum on the subject of disappearing for a few years to smoke pot on an island. On the one hand, Williams is Morris, with a drug-shortened career that has a few major highlights but reeks of wasted potential. DVOA suggests he is something less. And of course, he cannot use his Saints production here.
Ronnie Brown gets honorable mention, but now that we look back on his career, we can see that there was little "there" there. The Dolphins famously went from 1978 to 1996 without a 1,000-yard rusher, though that factoid is largely meaningless. They reached the Super Bowl twice in that span and employed some capable runners like Nathan, Franklin, and Mark Higgs, who was something of a 90’s Nathan. The Dolphins were a pass-oriented, committee-backfield team for that span, and their running games were rarely terrible. Still it explains why this list amounts to Nathan and two sets of teammates.
79 comments, Last at 20 Jun 2012, 4:16pm by HCH