Higher Education: The Best and Worst Third-Down Backs

I’m starting a new series over at Yahoo in which I use FO stats to try and make some salient points about specific performance value, and I wanted to begin with some of the indicators of “clutchiness.” The first two posts detail the best and worst third-down backs in 2010 (minimum 15 third-down carries) based on DVOA and Success Rate. There are a few surprises on both lists; certainly the top guy on the best list would evade a few guessers. The article about the 10 best backs is linked in the title; the article on the 10 worst can be found here.

After finding LeSean McCoy so high in the ‘10 best’ piece, I wondered how Michael Vick and other quarterbacks fared as third-down rushers, and asked Aaron for a list of DVOA and Success Rate for all 2010 quarterbacks with at least 10 carries. Of course, running on third down is usually a different challenge for a quarterback; unless it’s a short-yardage sneak, the likelihood is that such plays are based on breakdowns in passing plays and performed against defenders looking to close in after defending potential pass plays as opposed to pinning their ears back against a prospective run play.

So, of course, it would make perfect sense that the most effective third-down rushing quarterback, based on DVOA, would be … Jay Cutler?

Kind a shocker considering Matt Forte’s status as the worst third-down running back, but of course Cutler was doing his thing behind that same horrid line and had to make some breakaway plays. And he was very effective in doing so. On his 12 third-down runs (11 of which were listed in our game-charting as “scrambles” and not intentional runs), Cutler converted eight, including instances of third-and-9, third-and-15, and third-and-16.

Here are the best five rushing quarterbacks on third down (minimum 10 carries), followed by the five worst.


Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears – 72.0% DVOA, 12 carries, 121 yards, 75 % Success Rate

Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos – 55.9% DVOA, 10 carries, 104 yards, 40% Success Rate

Donovan McNabb, Washington Redskins – 44.9% DVOA, 10 carries, 90 yards, 70% Success Rate

Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles – 34.5% DVOA, 29 carries, 249 yards, 52% Success Rate

Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 33.3% DVOA, 27 carries, 178 yards, 78% Success Rate


Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo Bills – minus-53.6% DVOA, 14 carries, 69 yards, 29% Success Rate

Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens – minus-37.7% DVOA, 12 carries, 40 yards, 50% Success Rate

Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals – minus-36.8% DVOA, 11 carries, 32 yards, 64% Success Rate

Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers – minus-19.1% DVOA, 17 carries, 115 yards, 41% Success Rate

Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons – minus-3.9% DVOA, 11 carries, 37 yards, 64% Success Rate

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17 comments, Last at 17 Jun 2011, 1:46pm

#1 by DisplacedPackerFan // Jun 13, 2011 - 12:05pm

You know I just realized I may think of 3rd down backs differently. I've thought Brandon Jackson was a great 3rd down back, not because he could make short yard runs, but because he is excellent at blitz pick-up and can flare out and catch the ball and convert that way. It doesn't look like you included receiving DVOA in the numbers, and with there being so many 3rd down situations that are obvious passing situations that should be included as well because while the empty backfield is popular on 3rd and long, that running back still matters if they are on the field.

This just feels like a subset of short yardage situations, and I wonder how well it would correlate to all short yardage rushing situations. Perhaps I've just watched the Packers too long, since they generally seem to put their best receiving back in the game in 3rd down situations so that is what I think of as a 3rd down back. John Kuhn wasn't a 3rd down back in my mind, he was a short yardage situation back. But this could just be me.

I'm not surprised by Rodgers low running DVOA on 3rd downs. The team had issues all year running when they needed it. Rodgers scrambles well but his big scrambles did always seem to come on earlier downs.

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#10 by Arkaein // Jun 13, 2011 - 5:07pm

It actually looks like Rodgers must have had a few pretty big scrambles on 3rd down, his avg rush was about 6.7 YPC, with a much higher total yardage than his low DVOA peers.

His success rate wasn't that good though. Would be nice to see average yards to god on 3rd down for the QBs, as well as the effect of fumbles on the DVOA, since just one or two fumbles would have a big influence on DVOA over such small sample sizes.

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#2 by MilkmanDanimal // Jun 13, 2011 - 12:26pm

Josh Freeman, 78% success rate, 33.3% DVOA; am I safe in assuming that he was fifth on the overall list even with the highest success rate, because he was getting "just enough" for the first down rather than stretching it out to a TD? That's what it seemed like to me; he's a very adept scrambler (obviously), but one of the most impressive things about him whilst running is IMO that he slides and/or gets out of bounds rather than getting hit. He seems very conscious of avoiding injury rather than bulling people over.

Also, between him and Cadillac being so good on third down, it was the exact opposite of what the Bucs have done for years; fail utterly on third down.

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#8 by Kibbles // Jun 13, 2011 - 4:56pm

I think a more likely possibility is that the average 3rd down scramble for Josh Freeman came with fewer yards to go. For instance, if Josh Freeman faced 9 3rd-and-1s and converted 7 (78% success rate), that would be worth less DVOA than if Cutler faced 8 3rd-and-10s and converted 6 (75% success rate). I know that's how Tebow got so high on the list- convert a 3rd and 24 with your legs and watch your DVOA soar.

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#3 by Raiderjoe // Jun 13, 2011 - 1:38pm

Freman good

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#4 by Thomas_beardown // Jun 13, 2011 - 3:06pm

When I think of 3rd down back, I think of a back who subs in in obvious passing situations (3rd and 4 or longer). Not fullbacks who sub in to dive for a yard. Those are short yardage backs in my mind.

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#7 by Thomas_beardown // Jun 13, 2011 - 4:33pm

Well sure some backs are just good at everything, and some are more specific. This list though is kind of a hybrid list of backs who are good at various things.

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#6 by jklps // Jun 13, 2011 - 4:26pm

I think McCoy is a good RB but is greatly helped by teams worrying about Vick and his possible rush/pass options.

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#9 by Kibbles // Jun 13, 2011 - 5:05pm

What was Bill James' rule of thumb? That any good statistic should produce a list that's 90% common sense and 10% surprises? This list definitely fits that criteria. Cutler, Tebow, McNabb, Vick, and Freeman are all athletic QBs and good scramblers. All but McNabb topped 200 rushing yards last year, and all but Cutler topped 5.0 yards per carry. Flacco, Palmer, and Ryan are all deer in headlights outside of the pocket. Only Ryan topped 100 rushing yards, and none of them topped 3.0 ypc. Fitzpatrick is actually a very good scrambler (had 250+ yards at over 6ypc last year), but he's a mediocre QB playing for a terrible team with no threat of a running game, so it's no surprise to see him on the "5 worst" list. Aaron Rodgers, though... he's such a good scrambler who played for such a good team that it's really surprising to see him in the bottom 5.

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#12 by Podge (not verified) // Jun 13, 2011 - 6:20pm

Is there any reason I can't find any of the other Higher Education articles, apart from the one linked in the top 10 backs article? Would like to give them a read.

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#13 by IPO savant (not verified) // Jun 13, 2011 - 11:09pm

Rodgers fumbled at the goal line against Atlanta. That's one strike against the record

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#15 by John (not verified) // Jun 14, 2011 - 10:07am

Minimum 10 carries on 3rd down scrambles...I'd be curious to know whether Peyton Manning has had 10 carries on 3rd down over his entire career.

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#16 by Israel P. (not verified) // Jun 15, 2011 - 6:35pm

McCoy and Polite. Two Pitt guys out of the ten. Not bad, I suppose.

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#17 by Aaron Schatz // Jun 17, 2011 - 1:46pm


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