by Mike Tanier
The NFL has gone dark for a month, and I am taking a little time off. To hold you over, here are sneak peeks at three of the six* chapters I wrote for Football Outsiders Almanac 2012:
(*Ed. Note: Actually six-and-a-half, as Mike and Danny Tuccitto split the Baltimore Ravens chapter.)
Atlanta Falcons: Our projections like the Falcons this year, and I do too. Looking back on the Thomas Dimitroff-Mike Smith era, it is hard to find many missteps. The Falcons are a team built on a firm foundation, with a viable franchise quarterback, skill position talent and depth, a pretty good peripheral cast, and a strong organization. They have been in the Super Bowl hunt for four years and will be there again this year.
When a team keeps losing in the playoffs, fans and experts are quick to apply blame. You guys know that much of that blame game is just second guessing, and that very good teams sometimes just lose to slightly better teams, or even slightly worse teams with a better gameplan (and/or better luck). There is not much in the Falcons chapter about fourth-and-one gambles, because telling you that going for it is almost always the mathematically correct decision is preaching to the choir. Yes, I questioned the fourth-down gambles in January, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are mathematically the correct move. I sometimes buy lottery tickets. That doesn’t make doing so a good financial decision.
There’s no criticism of the Julio Jones trade in the Falcons chapter either; that became a popular second-guesser’s topic after the Giants loss. Instead, I look forward and try to determine just how long the Falcons championship window is going to remain open, and just what Dimitroff and Smith can do to win before several core players get too old to rock ‘n’ roll.
Asante Samuel is one of the big stars of the chapter. When the Eagles traded him, many of our local sports-talkers in Philly piled on him as if the guy who said the nastiest, least-supportable thing about him got a free frozen yogurt. Eagles fans should read the Falcons chapter to get a more balanced take on his role in the 2011 debacle.
Carolina Panthers: Here’s something you don’t see every day in the sports pages: a 1,700 word apology for being wrong.
We flopped pretty badly on our Cam Newton projections last year. I also flopped, writing negative preseason articles about Newton for other outlets. In this business, standard operating procedure is to pretend that those projections and articles never happened. But we don’t follow standard operating procedure, so the Panthers chapter acknowledges our mistakes while exploring what made Newton’s season so unique. It also explores what the Panthers have to do to improve in 2012: not have a historic amount of injuries on defense, get much better on special teams, and not give back much of their 2011 offensive gains.
New York Jets: One does not anticipate Jets coverage so much as brace for it. Many of you probably pre-cringe when the Jets are mentioned, so I do my best to steer the Jets chapter away from the various whirlpools and jetties. Tim Tebow deification is annoying, snippy finger-waggling about Tebow deification is worse, and by now even the best Rex Ryan jokes are two years past their freshness date.
So our Jets chapter strives to be as analytical as possible. We run through Darrelle Revis’ charting stats and provide the latest statistics on how Wildcat-like plays are working in the NFL. Wayne Hunter gets picked on a bit. The Jets are treated like a team, not a soap opera or morality play.
While bracing for the Jets, keep this in mind: there is a very good chance that they will win a bunch of 17-14 games and remain in the Wild Card hunt. The DVOA projections aren’t bad. Their Great Experiment has a solid chance of succeeding up to a point, thanks to Revis, the rest of the defense, and the offensive linemen not named Hunter. If you hate the peculiar brand of hype this team produces at 120 decibels, things may get worse before they get better.
If you are looking for comedy in the Jets chapter, stick around for the unit comments. Our unit comments are usually straightforward, but nothing is straightforward about the Jets. All of the ranting and raving by Jets coaches and strange public appearances by players can be found in the unit comments.
Next week, I will preview my other three chapters. Now, let’s rock a couple of running back Top Fives.
Browns Top Five Running Backs
1. Jim Brown
I normally run through the divisions in alphabetical order, but it made no sense to make you wade through Willis McGahee and Pete Johnson to get to Jim Brown.
It is hard to say anything new about Brown. If the Pro Football Hall of Fame were limited to ten players, he would be in. If it were limited to five, he would probably be in. He has a legitimate claim to being the best football player in history.
Had Brown not retired to pursue a movie career at age 29, he might still be the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, though it is more likely that he would be second, third, or fourth. Emmitt Smith passed him by more than 6,000 yards. Brown probably did not have five more All-Pro seasons in him after the amount of carries he thumped out early in his career. Between his popularity and his personality, Brown was going to get fed up with the football life and do something else at some point, just as Barry Sanders did. Brown left us with a career that had no ramp-up and no decline, just a decade of running guys over. It’s like the middle of Babe Ruth’s career, carved out and stuck on a platter.
2. Leroy Kelly
Kelly stepped right into Brown’s role and was almost as good as Brown for three seasons, gaining 1,100-1,300 yards with over five yards per carry from 1967 to 1969. Kelly was more of a slasher than Brown, and as good as his numbers were, they look like second-tier seasons if you stick them into the middle of Brown’s career. The Browns of this era typically had good teams that were led by coach Blanton Collier. They were capable of going 9-5 or 10-4 in a typical season, but those teams are forgotten because they are not the Lombardi Packers or Landry Cowboys, and they did not have Brown.
3. Marion Motley
The great Doctor Z once called Motley the best player in the history of pro football. As great as Motley was, and giving him credit as a two-way player, that is pushing it. His signature seasons came in the AAFC, which was a big punching bag for the Browns and does not look like a "major" league when you start scrutinizing its history and statistical record. He had a tremendous post-merger season in 1950, but then the injuries started to mount. It is hard to tell whether age or the level of competition were taking their tolls as Motley’s yards-per-carry dropped from the low 6.0-range down to 4.5. Motley was an incredible player and a pioneer, but he fits well as the third-best back in this storied franchise’s history.
4. Greg Pruitt
Now, here’s a great back who has been mind-wiped out of existence. Pruitt had three 1,000-yard seasons in the mid-1970s, when defenses ruled the earth. They were loud 1,000-yard seasons, with yards-per-carry rates in the high fours and 35-45 catches. Pruitt was a shifty all-purpose back, and when the Browns drafted bruiser Mike Pruitt (no relation) to be the focal point of their offense, Greg Pruitt reinvented himself as an early-80s third down back.
The 70s Browns were pretty mediocre, and by the time they became the Cardiac Kids in the late 70s they had two Pruitts in the backfield, which would have made for some great fantasy football bungles if the game was played then. As we often lament around here, NFL history tends to funnel into a handful of stories, erasing whole eras of great players on pretty good teams. Pruitt was a great back for several years, but you will rarely hear him mentioned on a list of 70s greats.
5. Mike Pruitt
The other Pruitt was very good as well. A solid featured back from 1979 through 1983 who usually cracked the 1,000-yard barrier, along with plenty of receptions. He was a poor man’s William Andrews in his best seasons, a power back who could also catch the ball and who fit the evolving offensive style of the time, which was slowly moving away from two-back offenses. Put the Pruitts together and you have a Hall of Famer, though one who would still finish second on this list. Mike Pruitt went on to own a Honda dealership in Akron.
Earnest Byner only had one great season with the Browns; in his other years, he was a change-up back. Kevin Mack also only had one truly great year (1986, same as Byner) but hung around the roster forever as the Browns tried to recapture what Mack lost to drugs. Dub Jones was an excellent all-purpose player in the early days. This is a hell of a list, and it will take years for a contemporary Browns player to crack it. In fact, the top two Ravens would have a hard time making it, though if pressed I would clear away some Pruitts for them.
Ravens Top Five Running Backs
1. Ray Rice
Rice is the first current starting running back to rank at the top of a list, right? Adrian Peterson ranked second, and while that may have been me being stubborn and nostalgic, you guys didn’t string me up on the message board. The Ravens have not been around very long, and Rice’s ranking at the top of this list is not without controversy, but still, this is a pretty good list to top.
2. Jamal Lewis
The 2,066-yard 2003 season was magnificent, of course. DVOA started hating Lewis in 2005 and never stopped. In his last two seasons in Baltimore, Lewis was hurting the Ravens offense according to DVOA and DYAR, though we all know that there were complicated factors called "Ravens quarterbacks."
From a total value standpoint, Rice’s 2009 and 2011 seasons were about the equals of Lewis’ 2003 season, and 2010 was better than any other season Lewis had. It’s a close call, with Lewis outgaining Rice by over 3,000 rushing yards. Perhaps I should have done the Vikings thing and said that Rice will assume the lead on Halloween. Aw heck, this is good as is.
We will see more of Priest in a few weeks. For the Ravens, he was a surprise 1,000-yard rusher in 1998, then an important change-up runner for a Super Bowl team. When you remember just how terrible the Ravens passing game was in 2000, you realize just how important Holmes was on screens and draws to provide some sort of counterpunch to Lewis.
McGahee had a 1,200 yard season in 2007 that DVOA hated (-8.2%, with the same caveats as Jamal Lewis had about a team with a gaping void at quarterback). He then had a few change-up seasons that were much better, from a percentage standpoint. McGahee was useful as a short yardage back and innings eater in place of Rice. Sometimes, getting an older back for that role makes sense, assuming he accepts his role and the price is right.
McGahee had a big year in Denver last year. He has had a weird, fractured career, starting with the injury in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2002 season. He is considered a disappointment, but he has had 1,000-yard seasons for three different franchises and has now rushed for over 7,000 yards. Curt Warner of the Seahawks was similar in the broad sense, except that Warner stayed in one place and played for a coach who was happy to just grind out three-yard runs.
There is no great choice for fifth place, but the Ravens did pretty well on the first four considering they had just two decades of history. Taylor made a great career out of being a change-up back, here and in Minnesota. Behind him are the likes of Bam Morris, who got caught with six pounds of weed in the back of his car once, and Le’Ron McClain, a fine all-purpose fullback who revitalized the !-formation key breaker for a few magical weeks.
Bengals Top Five Running Backs
1. James Brooks
Brooks was a 180-pound change-up back who was lucky enough to be on the Bengals when Sam Wyche arrived and opened up their offense. Even in Don Coryell’s Chargers system, Brooks was relegated to the traditional scatback role: kick returns, pitches, screens, and draw plays, with Chuck Muncie taking more of the traditional work. It took Wyche’s iteration of the West Coast Offense to open things up to the point that a little speedster could consistently have a 250-touch per season offensive role.
Brooks and Thurman Thomas were similar in many ways: dangerous runner-receivers in offenses that were revolutionizing concepts like the no-huddle attack. Thomas was better, of course, but not by an incredible amount.
2. Corey Dillon
Ricky Watters in reverse. Watters won a Super Bowl with a great performance for a great team that could probably have won without him, then went on to a long career of racking up tons of yards while being a pain in the butt to his coaches on other teams. Dillon racked up a lot of yards while being a pain in the butt to his coaches, then won a Super Bowl with a great performance for a great team that could probably have won without him.
Watters has a quiet Hall of Fame drumbeat rattling around the football universe. Dillon will need a ticket to get in. Their careers are really not that different. Dillon gets this high because he did not split his productive work among three teams, two of which had very solid lists. Also, he didn’t cause me as many angry memories.
3. Pete Johnson
Johnson rushed for 64 Bengals touchdowns, 19 more than Dillon, who has a 3,000-yard edge on Johnson on the franchise leaderboard. The 252-pound Johnson had a reputation as a goal-line back and was used as a specialist late in his career. The goal-line back strategy does not appear to be productive in modern football, and we have spent years tracking the more-or-less random performances of players who "have a nose for the end zone" on short-yardage carries. Thirty years ago, when the game was more grinding, the situation was probably different: a guy like Johnson really could push a pile forward an extra yard.
4. Rudi Johnson
DVOA liked Johnson at the start of his 2004-06 peak, when he cranked out 1,300-1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns every year. He went from 17th to fifth in the league in a stat that, as you well know, can be unkind to a back who is asked to soak up low-percentage carries up the middle. In 2006, he dipped to 24th and fell below average, mostly because his Success Rate dropped. Johnson had little big-play ability or receiving value, so his ability to crank out three-to-six yards per rush was his only calling card. For a few seasons, he was able to make a living off of it. If he played in the 1970s, he would have been the fullback in a two-back system, gained about 700 yards per year, and been productive for the whole decade.
5. Essex Johnson
Johnson was a proto-West Coast Offense running back who teamed with Boobie Clark and others in the early Ken Anderson backfields. He was a productive all-purpose back from 1971-73, catching 25-30 passes in his best seasons while rushing for 800-900 yards in a Dead Ball era. But really, I wanted to end this list with three straight Johnsons.
Ickey Woods had exactly one good year, joining Greg Cook on the Bengals’ Lovable One Year Wonder All Stars. The Bengals have a long history of drafting truly great college running backs and watching them churn through injury-plagued or disappointing careers: Charles Alexander, Archie Griffin, Ki-Jana Carter. Cedric Benson hammered out three hard working years that deserve mention. Boobie Clark was a 245-pound fullback who caught over 40 passes in his best seasons, a sign that the young Bill Walsh (working for Paul Brown) had some innovative ideas up his sleeve.
Steelers Top Five Running Backs
1. Franco Harris
When I clicked onto Harris’ Pro Football Reference page on Friday morning, it was the first time I had looked at his career record since I read the backs of his football cards in the mid-1980s. Back then, Harris did not look all that special to me. He had a bunch of 1,000-yard seasons, and he was chasing Jim Brown (as were Tony Dorsett and Walter Payton) for the all-time rushing title, but by the mid-1980s, 1,000-yard seasons were common, Harris was pretty washed up, and the 1970s Steelers were already this shiny black monolith that you could throw mastodon bones at but could not analyze logically.
Part of my brain has always kept Harris among the second-tier superstars at running back. Some of it may have been residual absorption of the "he couldn’t hold a candle to Jim Brown" rhetoric which was current at the time. Some of it was watching him grind in the early 80’s, when Dorsett soared and Payton appeared to get better and better because the guys around him got good.
So I clicked Harris’ record with fresh eyes on Friday, and oh my word. Averaging 4.8 yards per carry over 262 carries in 1975 is a feat. Blasting out five 1,000-yard seasons during the height of the Dead Ball 1970’s was another feat. Harris’ hang-around years were very productive, as hang-around years go: the 1982-83 Steelers were still playoff-caliber teams, and Harris cranked out 1,000-yards in 1983 and 604 in strike-shortened 1982, with receiving value that was not evident in his 70’s heyday. The "washed up" guy of my tweens was pretty good for a 32-33-year-old running back who was a workhorse during the roughest era in football history.
Harris, like Emmitt Smith, is better thought of as the catalyst for the success around him than as a product of it. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth would not be in the Hall of Fame without Harris. Harris would be in the Hall of Fame without them. About the biggest knock you can make against him is that he never had to face his own defense. If he did, I bet he would still have a solid game.
Bettis led the league in rushing DYAR in 1996. He finished third in Success Rate in 1996 and fourth in 1997. His Success Rates and yards per carry then dipped for several years, but they rebounded in 2000, and our metrics are generally kind to Bettis during his late-career thunder-back phase. Bettis was able to post positive DVOA percentages despite averaging just 3.6 yards per carry because of low fumble totals and high short-yardage situation production. Our stats got what Bettis was being asked to accomplish.
3. John Henry Johnson
Johnson is best known as part of the Million Dollar Backfield with Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, and Joe Perry, though he was very much the Ernie Hudson of those Ghostbusters. He went on to a handful of excellent seasons for the Steelers after a productive stop in Detroit. He retired fourth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list, which goes to show how playing across eras can affect a player’s rankings on those lists. NFL offenses started opening up quickly once the AFL arrived, and seasons expanded from 12 to 14 games, so the first group of guys to stay productive in the new era got the same boost that veterans got in the late 1970s and early 80s.
Johnson is in the Hall of Fame, and I would never kick him out, but if we used him as the baseline criterion for entry, there would be lots more running backs in Canton.
4. Rocky Bleier
War hero and king of the 1970’s Other Backs. Everyone knows that Bleier and Franco both rushed for 1,000-yards in 1976. Terry Bradshaw was hurt for much of the season, and even when he did play late in the year he was not himself. Bleier had four 100-yard games between Week 9 and Week 14. In one 14-3 win against the Dolphins, Bleier and Franco both went for 110 yards, with Franco needing two more carries than Bleier's 20 and adding on a score. Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek combined for eight pass attempts.
The Steelers missed the Super Bowl that year because both Bleier and Franco were injured in the playoffs, and Bradshaw was still not himself. (Raiderjoe: feel free to differ with this interpretation of events.) In the Steelers Super Bowl years, Bleier was an important change-up player. His 1979 season, with 711 scrimmage yards and 4.7 yards per carry for a Super Bowl winner, offers some idea of what his production would look like in a more modern context.
Our stats are not too high on Mendenhall, who usually cranks out negative DVOA percentages and DYAR totals around 77. His receiving metrics look a little better, though his raw totals are hurt by the fact that Ben Roethlisberger thinks checking down to the running back causes jock itch.
Your alternate choices here are guys like Barry Foster, a malcontent who had one big year; Willie Parker, a fun player who came and went pretty quickly; and Frank Pollard and Walter Abercrombie, the mid-1980s tandem who spent five years together not being Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Merrill Hoge fits in here, too. Mendenhall will blow all of these guys away with one more productive season, so why wait?