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AFC North Roundup Finale: Running Backs redux

In which the running backs are viewed in terms of how well they, well, ran. Never fear, the offensive lines will eventually be scrutinized for their complicity.

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Isaac Redman eludes Courtney Upshaw.
Isaac Redman eludes Courtney Upshaw.

In the previous article the AFC North principal running backs were viewed for their role in the receiving game. You can view the article here. This article will focus on the running game, comparing the two principal backs and the fullback for each team (whether they listed a fullback on their depth chart or not). Pittsburgh is the exception to this rule, as the carries were spread between a number of backs, because of injuries, fumbles, and other acts of God and/or nature. Especially because the "principal" back with the least carries was the No. 1 back on the team, we will look at three backs and the fullback.

But it isn't just the backs. Just as the receivers are dependent upon having at least a competent quarterback throwing to them (see Fitzgerald, Larry,) the backs are dependent upon having a competent offensive line blocking for them. Or, as Football Outsiders puts it,

These numbers do not separate the performance of a running back from the performance of his offensive line... Be aware that one will affect the other.

Therefore I will give some numbers for the individuals who made up the lines, as well as some rankings for the line play overall. You may then come to your own conclusions, or save yourself the trouble by agreeing with mine : )

As I did with the wide receivers and tight ends, I'm going to bring in some historical perspective for the running backs. But first, let's compare them in 2012:


As I looked up the historical figures for this metric, I was surprised at how little variation there has been, at least in the past five seasons, between the Average Yards per Attempt. (The low in the past five seasons was 4.18; the high was 4.3.) The highest average in Yards Per Attempt in 2012 among the backs with a high number of attempts was a stellar 6.0, achieved by both Adrian Peterson and C.J. Spiller. The low (again, among high-attempt backs) was Darren McFadden, with 3.3 YPA.

Disclaimer - I used the Pro Football Focus "25%" filter, which leaves off the numerous backs who got less than about 20 attempts during the whole season. It's a huge number of additional players, for a tiny bit of additional information. So, for instance, the NFL rushing stats rank about 317 players, including anyone in any position who carried the ball even once. The PFF 2012 stats, filtered at 25%, rank 60 players.

The blue bars on the chart above are the averages for all (e.g. all 60) players, and the dark blue bar is for the players who had more than the league average number of attempts. For 2012 the average number of attempts was 163. As you can see, the average was higher, but not vastly higher. Baltimore was the only team in which both backs exceeded either average. The worst AFC North back in the high-attempts category was Trent Richardson, with 3.6. The best was Bernard Piece, with 4.9. (Cedric Peerman doesn't make it over the 163-carry threshold—he only had 34 attempts.)

There are various ways to rate a running back, and PFF does just that. I've cherry-picked a few of the metrics that particularly interest me. First, their overall rating for running backs. (These are ratings - higher is better:)


This rating takes into account everything a back is typically asked to do, including run and pass blocking, receiving, how many touchdowns, first downs, penalties, fumbles, you name it. The top back was Adrian Peterson (there's a shock) with a whopping 30.2. The worst was Darren McFadden, with a -19.3. Here is how they ranked out of all backs (lower is better):


Before we move on from PFF, here is how they rated the AFC North backs in their primary Signature Stat for running backs, Elusive Rating. As they explain, it "boils down a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers." This time it is a rating, so higher is better:


This rating combines the yards after contact and missed tackles, both receiving and rushing, to determine how "elusive" a player is. I used the numbers rather than the ranking, because while Isaac Redman was No. 2 and Bernard Pierce was No. 3 ranked among high-attempt backs, there is almost 14 points between them (89.6 for Redman, 75.7 for Pierce.) The No. 1 back was C.J. Spiller, with an Elusive Rating of 94.6.

But opinions certainly vary. Let's look at some other rankings. First, Football Outsiders (the very same who admitted it was pretty hard to separate the performance of a back from the performance of his line):


The difference between DYAR and DVOA is, DYAR indicates overall value, DVOA ranks value per play. They ranked only 42 players, and thus Cedic Peerman drops off the chart. We're back to rankings, with lower being better.

Other than Ray Rice still being the top back in the AFC North this past season (and surely none of us would dispute that) the FO guys felt rather differently about most of the other guys. Let's look at a few of the raw NFL stats:


From the standpoint of pure production, I guess Trent Richardson wins. But on the other hand, while BJ G-E (sorry, I'm getting tendonitis typing his name : ) had a lot less touchdowns than Richardson, in more attempts, he was also No. 10 in the league for number of first downs. Thus do raw stats (like total yards or yards/game) not give you the whole story on a player.

Before I delve into the historical production of the longer-tenured players, here is the Pro Football Reference Approximate Value for each of the players in 2012:


This is an astonishing difference between Rice and the other players, but it speaks about what a large portion of the Ravens' offensive is centered around Rice, either as a runner or a receiver.

Just for fun, here are some more figures, comparing the players then in the league during the previous four seasons. First, the Average Yards/Attempt for each season, with the blue bars again representing the league averages:


Green-Ellis was still with New England in 2011.

Jonathan Dwyer's astonishing YPA of 7.7 was No. 1 in the league (followed by Mewelde Moore at 7.1). It was, however, on 16 attempts, with a long of 75 yards, which perhaps skews the average a tad. Moore's was on 22 carries, with a long of 21, and thus is a bit more meaningful. Which maybe seems unfair to Dwyer, but I'm still annoyed he couldn't run it into the end zone... Peerman's stellar 5.0 is a similar situation to Dwyer—three carries, with a long of 11. This is why I decided it makes sense to eliminate the low-carry backs from the calculations for the most part, as things are too easily skewed in a small number of carries.


We see the small number of carries come home to roost with Peerman and Dwyer. The former had two attempts, the latter nine. Peerman doesn't appear on the chart because his average is less than 1.0. Here's 2009 and 2008 together, as they are getting thinner...


Mendenhall only had 35 snaps in 2008, thanks to Ray Lewis. (Some reports say a shoulder injury, some a broken collarbone, but whatever the case, it kept him out for the rest of the season.) He got a full workload in 2009, though, and bested the league average. He didn't best Ray Rice, though, and never has. (Whether this is his fault or not is another question.)

Before we leave PFF let's look at the Elusive Rating for the earlier years:


The high for 2011 was Carolina's Jonathan Steward, with 81.4. The high for AFC North backs was Redman, again, with 59.8, tied for No. 6 among higher-target backs. Cedric Peerman had a banner year in 2010, but we'll see as we look further back it was an anomaly. The league high in 2010 was LaGarrette Blount (the back with whom Redman was tied in 2011) with 89.2. His 53.3 in 2010 would have put him at No. 6 again if he had enough attempts to make it through the filter. We continue to see this is not something Ray Rice excels in. I'm sure the Ravens are okay with that, though.


Rice had his best year in 2009 in this metric, and indeed he was the No. 1 back overall according to PFF. The No. 1 back in '09 was Jonathan Forsett of Seattle, with a rating of 70.0. Rice's 49.5 put him at No. 8. In 2008 the top back in this metric was DeAngelo Williams, with a rating of 83.4.

PFF Overall Rating (higher is better.)


In 2011 PFF rated Fred Jackson the best back, with a rating of 19.3. Ray Rice was the best AFC North back, with a rating of 9.5, and Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman were right behind, tied at 9.0. PFF's worst-ranked back that year was Kregg Lumpkin, at -10.3, and Montario Hardesty at -9.9 was pushing him..

In 2010 the top back was Jamaal Charles, with a rating of 19.5. It wasn't a great year for the AFC North, as you can see. The best AFC North back was Mewelde Moore, at 3.1, followed by a few spots later by Isaac Redman at 1.7. It was a bad year for Steven Jackson, too, who garnered a league-low -12.3 rating.


As noted earlier, 2009 was a great year for Ray Rice, who was No. 1 overall at a rating of 16.2. Rashard Mendenhall didn't have a very impressive year, but it was better than Matt Forte's -21.1.

In 2008 Derrick Ward took the top honors, with a score of a mere 8.7. It must have been a bad year for rushing in general. Jamal Lewis held down the 130th spot, with a -19.1 rating.

Let's have a quick look at DYAR, DVOA, and Approximate Value before we wrap up:


Because there are less people on the chart I put the DYAR and DVOA for each player side by side. These are rankings, so lower is better, and out of around 40-50 players each year. The threshold number of carries is 100.

Here's the first two years. We lose Mendenhall because of the injury in 08, just like the Steelers did...


And here's the PFR Approximate Value for everyone:


I'm not going to spend nearly as much time on the fullbacks. The truth is, the Ravens and Steelers had a fullback, the Browns and the Bengals, not so much, although they had players who functioned as such sufficiently for PFF to rank them in with the fullbacks. And I'm going to give you the charts and graphs anyhow, but honestly, Vonta Leach is the best. He was great in Houston, and he's been awesome in Baltimore. The Steelers' fullback, Will Johnson, had greatness thrust upon him, if you will, and some of it stuck, some of the time. For a UDFA from 2011 who never played a down until 2012, and who was expected to be nothing more than a camp body, he had a promising year. But don't believe me. Have a look at the numbers (which are harder to come by for fullbacks, I fear). First the 2012 figures:


Vonta Leach was No. 1 in the league with a spectacular 19.0. (The league low was -8.8.) But Will Johnson ranked a respectable No. 14 out of 63 ranked fullbacks.

Here's 2011 and 2010. (Vonta Leach was with Houston in 2010.)


Bruce Arians wasn't kidding when he said he didn't have a fullback in his offense, at least in 2011. Trai Essex took one snap as a fullback, and that was the sole fullback snap for Pittsburgh. However, in 2010 three men took snaps—Doug Legursky (albeit only 2), David Johnson, and none other than Isaac Redman. Between the three players there were 334 snaps at fullback, with David Johnson getting the lion's share. Redman took 90 snaps, though, and was the only one of the three players to get carries at fullback. He had a respectable 4.3 average on 24 carries.

As for the other AFC North fullbacks, in 2011 Leach was No. 3, Pressley was No. 6, and Smith was No. 19 out of 68 rated players. In 2010 Leach was again No. 3, Pressley was No. 54, and Redman was tied for No. 8 (out of 74).

Here's 2009 and 2008:


Pressley was with Tampa Bay in 2009, and garnered a faintly-above-replacement-value rating of 0.2. Leach had a bad year. They were No. 35 and No. 71 in the league, out of 74 players. I guess if you're going to be bad you might as well go for it. Leach was No. 2 in the league in 2008. It makes me wonder if he was injured in some way in '09 to render him relatively ineffective.

Finally, the PFR Approximate Value:


Note Isaac Redman's AV in 2010 was a composite of his value at running back and fullback.

As usual, this post has gotten seriously unwieldy, so I'm going to end with a few observations about the running backs. The next post will look at the offensive lines to see if we can tease out how much of the success, or lack thereof, of the running game we can place at their feet. Hopefully Marcus Gilbert won't fall on my conclusions before I can come to them.

Baltimore Ravens: They won the Super Bowl. But, more than that, they have an outstanding stable of running backs who were very productive this season. Rookie Bernard Pierce got more carries as the season progressed, and he didn't waste the opportunity. Leach was an terrific acquisition for the Ravens in 2011. To my eyes at least they are set for the next few years, assuming they are as lucky with injuries in the backs as they have been so far.

Cincinnati Bengals: BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a bit of an enigma. His steady improvement during his years with the Patriots, culminating in his excellent 2011 season, gave hope that he was ready to step into a No. 1 slot. Pro Football Focus obviously felt he was a failure in 2012, though. Football Outsiders were kinder, but on a per-play basis they found him to be 8% worse than an "average" running back. On the other hand (I suppose that would be the third hand) Pro Football Reference gave him the second-best score, behind only Ray Rice, for the AFC North backs. (Of course, that might be said to be damning with faint praise.)

So as sort of a tie-breaker, I had a look at Advanced Football Stats, who also ranks running backs. They put Ray Rice as No. 1, (although he is only No. 2 if you include the playoffs.) Green-Ellis is at No. 24, out of 83. (Darren McFadden is No. 83. This just wasn't his year.) Cedric Peerman did better, with a ranking of No. 18. Oh, and Bernard Pierce was, inexplicably, No. 63. If Baltimore finds this disturbing, I'm sure the Pittsburgh coaches would be happy to consider a trade for a slightly-used WR and, perhaps, the ball boy.

The Advanced Football Stats system is ranked by Win Probability Added. You can find out what that means here. I'll give the rankings for the other backs in due time. To return to the question at hand, it seems to me that, rather like Pittsburgh, the Bengals had a lot of backs but not a tremendous amount of production. How they address this in the coming months presumably depends on what they think the upside is of the men they have. Thank you, Captain Obvious!!!

Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson's season was doubtless a disappointment, especially to those Browns fans who hoped he would be the saving of the franchise. This isn't to say he played really poorly, especially when you consider he was struggling with injuries the whole season, but they didn't perhaps get the value they expected, given how much they gave up to move to the No. 3 slot. He's just as good-looking as ever, though, and I expect great things for him next year. Mainly because I'm not planning on drafting him as my principal running back for my fantasy team next season. Being drafted by me has been the kiss of death to better players than Richardson. Sorry, all you Cleveland fans!

The problem wasn't just Richardson, though. Montario Hardesty wasn't really able to pick up the slack. What did AFS think of the Cleveland stable? Well, not much. Hardesty was ranked No. 47, and Richardson a shocking No. 71. Of course, no one really knows how the bi-annual coaching shake-up will affect the plans in Cleveland. But Richardson, come what may, is going to be a big part of their plans.

Pittsburgh Steelers: As we all know by now, this was a historically bad year for the Steelers' run game. Unlike the other three AFC North combatants, though, the Steelers seldom had the use of their putative No. 1 back, due to injuries and, for lack of a better word, pique. And given the revolving O-line and the "running back by committee" approach, it probably isn't terribly surprising.

I'm just guessing, but I suspect the coaching staff never expected the "committee" approach to continue beyond the first several games, when everything would shake down and someone would emerge as the go-to guy. And, thanks to injuries not just to the line but to the backs themselves, that never happened.

As we also all know, the Steelers have gone from a plethora of runners to a giant question mark at the position. Rashard Mendenhall is probably gone. I suspect he wants a fresh start, preferably with a team with a good O-line, and I for one don't blame him. Steeler Nation never really took him to their collective bosom, due to a number of unfortunate circumstances, only some of which were his fault. Chris Rainey is out on his butt. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are restricted free agents. Baron Batch was the least productive back last season, and he's the only one who is signed for next year.

So what would I do if I were Kevin Colbert? Besides have frequent panic attacks, I mean? (Not that I expect he does. He seems remarkably calm.) I've expressed before the opinion that I would let Mendenhall and Dwyer walk, sign Redman, and hope to heaven for a relatively cheap back in the draft who would pan out.

And in Mendenhall's case, despite his down year, I'm not basing this on my assessment of his talent, but on the reality that sometimes a student/teacher relationship (or in this case coach(es)/player) reaches a point of no return, and it's better for everyone concerned to move on. I strongly suspect we will see Mendenhall have a great season somewhere else. But I don't think he would have it here. It's all very well to pooh-pooh the psychology and feel if a player is being paid enough none of that should matter, but it does. I might be wrong, and I hope I am. I would love to see Mendenhall re-sign with Pittsburgh and have that great season in the Black and Gold, perhaps behind a new zone-blocking scheme for which those who know more than I say he is suited. But sadly, I don't expect it.

As to Dwyer, he seems like a great young man, and I like great young men. But there are a lot of question marks there.

So if I'm not thrilled with Dwyer, why would I want to keep Isaac Redman, who is older than any of the other backs? Because I think he has more to offer. If you look at the numbers he ranked better than the other Pittsburgh backs in most metrics. It's not a fluke, either. In Elusive Rating, for example, he has consistently rated highly. What about Advanced Football Stats, since I was using them as a tie-breaker? Well, they weren't particularly keen on any of the Pittsburgh backs, not surprisingly, but at No. 55 Redman was just barely bested by Rashard Mendenhall (No. 49). Jonathan Dwyer? A thumbs-down at No. 74.

I'm well aware that all of these rankings are subjective to one extent or another. But when a pattern emerges one starts to take it more seriously. Mendenhall is without a doubt more talented than the others, but if he no longer wears a Pittsburgh uniform that scarcely does Steeler Nation any good. Would I keep Isaac Redman rather than Rashard Mendenhall? That isn't the question. Redman is not going to be the primary back on this team. He had the opportunity to grab the No. 1 slot last season and didn't manage it. But I think he would be an excellent choice for the No. 2 slot. Lest we forget from the last post, he was the No. 1 back in the league in pass blocking efficiency, and although he had a higher-than-league-average drop rate last season, he's generally been a sure-handed receiver.

The offensive line post which is next up will also analyze the running game as a function of the health and competency of the line. Hopefully in a few less words than this one. With any luck, a few adjustments to the conclusions reached in this article may be in order. Stay tuned...