by Danny Tuccitto
In our 10th anniversary conversation about DVOA and DYAR records, it's time to start talking about running backs. If you haven't read the first two parts in the series, here are the links:
Mr. Bettman was unavailable to proctor, so there's no pop quiz today. However, there is one question I would like you to answer before we start. Below is a list of six DVOA-era running backs that are not yet in the Hall of Fame, four of which have already failed once in balloting. Please rank them from most to least deserving of enshrinement, and set aside your answer for reconsideration later.
- Tiki Barber
- Jerome Bettis
- Terrell Davis
- Priest Holmes
- Edgerrin James
- LaDainian Tomlinson
Last week, FO newcomer Scott Kacsmar made a strong case for why Davis deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, at least compared to Bettis and Roger Craig. When I set out to put today's column together, I was not planning on it being a re-evaluation of or rebuttal to Scott's argument, nor a specific argument of my own in favor of a different back. However, after gathering all the stats, it ended up going in that direction. As you'll see, there are two running backs on the above list that both DVOA and (especially) DYAR deem to be no doubters and another that should be getting stronger consideration among voters than he has so far: One of these three may or may not be Terrell Davis. And besides, the tables are so dominated by a certain back already in the Hall, that a narrative other than "man, Marshall Faulk was really good" seemed necessary to keep your attention.
To wit, here are the best rush DVOA seasons by a running back since 1991:
Man, Marshall Faulk was really good!
If we use the standard Football Outsiders minimum of 100 carries, our list of the top rushing DVOA seasons runs into the same usage problem we had with quarterbacks. So we also decided to run a table with the top 10 DVOA seasons given a minimum of 200 carries, although this requires going down to No. 22 in the rankings based on the 100-carry minimum.
As you proceed further down the rankings, the legit high performers continue to separate themselves from the stems and seeds even more. No running back produced two seasons in the top 10, and only two backs have multiple appearances in the top 25 (Faulk and Holmes), but 11 backs repeat in the top 50 and those 11 account for 25 of the 50 seasons: Charlie Garner, Pierre Thomas, Larry Johnson, Brian Westbrook, Emmitt Smith, Faulk, Davis, Sanders, Holmes, Bettis, and Tomlinson. And who is the cream of this cash crop? Well, although Sanders will probably join them when we finish adding 1990 to our database, as of right now only Faulk and Holmes had at least three seasons in the top 50 DVOAs. One of that pair actually had four, and his name is not Marshall Faulk.
It probably doesn't surprise you, however, that only two of the top 10 seasons occurred in the past six years (also only six of the top 25 and nine of the top 50), and that they came from players who have constantly left fans asking, "Why don't they run him more often?" Regardless of whether or not coaches are consciously driving it, offense has shifted more and more towards a preference for efficiency over volume in the running game. And to me, that's a tacit vindication -- and admittedly self-serving observation -- of football analytics, which has been saying for the past 10 years that teams need not establish the run. Todd Haley may have lost everything in Kansas City, but you never know. One day, he might find a double-die Denver mint penny underneath one of Pittsburgh's team buses.
With that idea in mind -- volume vs. efficiency, not Todd Haley qua panhandler -- let's see if any of the best rush DVOA seasons make an encore when we switch to DYAR. The top 10 rush DYAR seasons are displayed below, along with those for receiving DYAR:
(Ed. Note: Receiving numbers may differ slightly from numbers on our stats pages because of a recently fixed error regarding receiver numbers on interceptions; we'll have all our stats pages fixed soon.)
As far as the receiving DYAR table goes, there's really only one thing to say: Man, Marshall Faulk was really good!
Of the four top 10 rush DVOA seasons featuring 200 or more carries, three carry over to the list of top 10 rush DYARs, with Jamaal Charles' 2010 campaign being the only omission. Charles 6.38 yards per rush represents a level of efficiency that remains the highest since 1991 (and second-highest since 1978), but a 2.2 percent touchdown rate (ranked 599th out of 964 qualifying seasons) drops his total value in 2010 to 20th overall.
Getting down to brass tacks, though, only eight-tenths of a DYAR keep Terrell Davis from having the two most valuable rushing seasons since 1991. More than any stat you will see today, that one distills the argument for Davis' Hall of Fame candidacy down to its most justifiable premise: All careers have peaks, but no peak was higher than his 1,128 rush DYAR in 1997 and 1998. Even the best of Emmitt Smith falls nearly 200 DYAR short. If we add in Faulk's 1999 season, his two-year peak ends up 300 short of Davis'. At this point, it doesn't take Fred Edelstein to correctly predict the next sentence in this paragraph. There's one other running back in the table besides Davis whose two-year peak produced more rushing value than the aforementioned Hall of Famers, and his name is not LaDainian Tomlinson.
But since this is Davis' high-water mark in the piece, it's worth citing a couple of stats that should go a long way towards closing the casket on a long-standing argument against him. As Scott revealed in his piece last week, Davis had 1,829 rush DYAR during a seven-year career spent entirely under the tutelage of Mike Shanahan. (That's not one of the fatal stats I'm referring to.) In three seasons with Shanahan, Clinton Portis had 783 rush DYAR (that's not it either), but we'll see later that Sheriff Gonna Getcha was plenty great without help from Boss Hogg. The other 40 running backs who ever carried the ball during Shanahan's stints in Denver or Washington amassed 2,721 rush DYAR combined. (That's the one!) That means Davis was nearly as valuable in seven seasons as the 85 combined seasons of every other Shanahan-era running back for the Broncos and [Redskins] not named Clinton Portis.
If that doesn't do it for you, here's another way of looking at things. During Shanahan's tenure with the Broncos (1995-2008), the cumulative 4,862 rush DYAR by running backs ranked No. 1 over that 14-year span. Remove Davis from the total, and they drop to third. Remove Davis and Portis, and they drop out of the top 10 entirely. Obviously, two numbers don't represent a nail in the coffin, but continuing to argue the Shanahan angle starts to resemble death throes when you consider that two great runners account for such a large portion of all the value that Shanahan backs have ever produced.
That ends the brief pro-Davis portion of this column. We now return to regular programming. Here are the top 10 games since 1991 according to total DYAR (box scores linked up in the "Week" column; asterisks mean the team lost):
|Best Total DYAR, Game, 1991-2012|
Man, Marshall Faulk was really good!
Admittedly, this list looks like it's skewed a bit towards running backs that were valuable as receivers; glorified Roger Craigs, if you will. And indeed, the games ranked sixth through tenth would not qualify for the top 10 according to rush DYAR. However, there's a danger in overestimating how much the nature of a running back's skill set matters here. First, the flip side of the previous statement is that the top five do rank among the 10 best games of rush DYAR, and none of those five backs were slouches when it came to receiving ability. Even Corey Dillon (46th in receiving DYAR since 1991) and Sanders (100th) were above-replacement pass catchers during their careers. Second, it's also true that the backs in the bottom of the table weren't replacement-level runners. I've belabored how good Faulk was, Thurman Thomas is in the Hall of Fame thanks in part to his 14th-most rushing yards of all time, and -- spoiler alert! -- Westbrook's career rush DYAR is among the top 22 since 1991.
So if we can agree that both rushing and receiving matter for running backs, then perhaps the most interesting about the table is how many of the greatest games since 1991 in terms of yards from scrimmage aren't in the top 10 of total DYAR. Chief among them is Adrian Peterson's 315-yard game in Week 9 of his rookie season, which ranks only 39th on our list (94 total DYAR). The reasons why it's not higher are five-fold: (1) It came against a 2007 Chargers run defense that finished 23rd in DVOA, (2) 145 rushing yards and a touchdown came while Minnesota was protecting a fourth-quarter lead, (3) he fumbled during that fourth quarter, (4) all that extra yardage on his long runs produced diminishing returns in terms of value, and (5) he only caught two passes for 17 yards.
Still, Peterson's performance that day resulted in the most scrimmage yards in a game since 1991, so it remains impressive no matter what total DYAR thinks. You know which running back had a game in 2002 that sits just behind Peterson's on the scrimmage-yard list and at the top of our total DYAR list? His name isn't Joseph Addai.
But before I end the suspense, and finally reveal what this running back's name actually is -- god forbid you haven't figured it out already -- below are the top 22 careers of the past 22 years according to rush DYAR and receiving DYAR:
Man, Marshall Faulk was really good! Not only has he absolutely blown away the competition when it comes to receiving value, but he also ranked in the top five in rushing value. I wonder what that means for where his career ranks according to total DYAR. (/sarcasm)
So, of course, the running back I've been alluding to this entire time is Priest Holmes. Let's recap what he's accomplished so far in this column. His rush DVOA in 2002 was the eighth-best since 1991, and he's the only back with four seasons in the top 50 -- more than Marshall Faulk, Emmitt Smith, and Terrell Davis. Two of those seasons also featured top 10 run DYARs, a feat Smith and Davis matched, but Faulk didn't. His two-year peak in 2002 and 2003 was slightly lower than Davis', but higher than both Smith's and Faulk's. At his absolute best, he had a more valuable single-game performance than Davis, Smith, or Faulk ever did. Now, we find out that he had the best rushing career ever (so far), with the second-best career being closer to fifth place than it is to first. Someone, for the love of all that is holy, why was Priest Holmes not even a semifinalist in Hall of Fame voting this year?
I've waited until now to discuss the elephant in the room because the career rush DYAR table is the one to make this skeptic a true believer. I had thought that, in the grand scheme of things, Holmes' connection to Dick Vermeil made him a poor man's Faulk, and so more than the usual proportion of his value was wrapped up in receiving. I had also thought that he couldn't have been a better rusher than Tomlinson. But here I come to find out that he ranks No. 1 in career rush DYAR, well ahead of Tomlinson, and even farther ahead of rich man's Priest Holmes. For me, those are game changers.
Before proceeding any further, though, let's see the top 22 in career total DYAR according to a simple sum, a weighted sum, and an average of the back's six best seasons (asterisk means the player is still active):
First thing's first. At this point in the column, we're all aware of how great Faulk was, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that he's the No. 1 running back of the past 22 years no matter how you measure it. That said, the margin between Faulk and Holmes in the table on the left is even more impressive than the lead Peyton Manning has over Tom Brady in total career DYAR for quarterbacks. In both cases, the leader's total is 38 percent higher than that of the runner-up. However, in Faulk's case, No. 2 isn't still active, so he literally doesn't stand a chance of closing the gap.
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Furthermore, when you consider the pace that Maurice Jones-Drew and Peterson would have to maintain, how much longer they would have to maintain it, and the NFL's aforementioned trend towards efficiency over volume in the running game, I think Faulk's total DYAR record will be broken by a back who started his career before 1991 rather than by a back who will start his career in the future. Who might that older back be? Well, looking at the standings after removing our 1991 debut restriction, I doubt it will be any of the following Hall of Famers:
- Emmitt Smith: 2,636 total DYAR, one season played before 1991.
- Barry Sanders: 1,923 total DYAR, two seasons played before 1991.
- Thurman Thomas: 1,935 total DYAR, three seasons played before 1991.
Of the other 123 running backs in our DYAR database who started before 1991, the only one that seems to even have a chance is Marcus Allen, who sits at 1,400 total DYAR, and had five Pro Bowls seasons from 1982 to 1990, averaging the following per year over that span: 245 carries, 4.1 yards per carry, 53 receptions, 9.4 yards per reception, and 11 total touchdowns. Join us, won't you, for when we unveil the answer during 20th-anniversary festivities in 2023.
Let's finish up by going back to the question at the beginning of the column. After seeing all of these stats, here is how I would rank the six running backs: (1) Priest Holmes, (2) LaDainian Tomlinson, (3) Terrell Davis, (4) Tiki Barber, (5) Edgerrin James, (6) Jerome Bettis.
And here's why I would rank them that way...
When you look at DVOA and DYAR in a light more favorable to Davis, it's clear that the argument for him making the Hall of Fame before Priest Holmes boils down to Davis' Super Bowls. I say "Super Bowls" instead of "playoff performances" because, well, we wouldn't cite a single iota of postseason evidence about Davis if he had never made the Super Bowl -- except of course to point out that he had never won a Super Bowl. Say, off the top of your head, what were Eric Dickerson's career stats in the post season? Cris Carter's? Heck, what were Priest Holmes' postseason stats?
I can tell you one thing, though. None of them ever made the Super Bowl.
UPDATE:As has been pointed out in the comments, Holmes won a Super Bowl as a part-timer with the Ravens in 2000. I think the fact that I forgot this kind of helps the more general point I was trying to make. If Steve Young had lost Super Bowl XXIX, the only Super Bowl-related aspect of his candidacy that people would have brought up was the fact that he never won one; which is funny since he actually won two prior to 1994. They would have been as worthless to his Hall of Fame argument as Holmes' ring seems to be.
So with "Terrell Davis, great champion" out of the way, I think Holmes has the better case. He produced more value as a receiver and more values as a runner. Those things remain true even if you discount credit for Holmes' extra two years or look at both of their six-year peaks. And while I'm going to postpone a lengthier, more philosophical discussion of "peaks" until the comments section, my rebuttal to, "Davis had the best two-year (and three-year and four-year) rush DYAR peak," is that Holmes had the best five-year (and six-year) rush DYAR peak. He also had a better total DYAR peak for all possible peak lengths. Hell, he also happened to have the best one-game peak in total DYAR and a better one-game peak than Davis in rush DYAR. Really, what's the definition of "peak" anyway? Why does no one talk about Tiki Barber's peak when half his 10-year career was spent as a punter returner and RBBC-member?
Regarding the rest of my rankings, I have Tomlinson ahead of Davis for basically the same reasons that I have Holmes ahead of Davis. Many of those reasons apply to the careers of Barber and James, but they can't thank me for my support because they didn't appear in any of the season or game tables. Finally, Bettis was like the anti-Holmes of researching stats for this column. Before it, I was squarely in the "lean yes" camp. Afterwards, I don't think Bettis comes close to stacking up. And yet, somehow, he's been a Hall of Fame finalist?
That's all for today; the worst running backs will be revealed on Monday. Now, let's have at it in the comments!