What about rushing? . . . .In modern times, most RBs have a median carry length of three yards. I suspect that’s been the case for the majority of RBs for a long time. LenDale White and his 3.9 YPC last season? Median rush of 3 yards. Adrian Peterson and his 4.8 YPC? Median rush of 3 yards.
I think this has powerful implications. If most runningbacks tend to have the same median rush, then those who are more effective -- and hence have higher averages -- would be almost exclusively based on their big-play ability. (That big-play ability could still come in different forms, i.e. the guy who consistently can turn five yarders into 15 yarders, or the guy who can break every 10th or 15th rush into a 50 yarder.)
But this would imply that the powerback, or at least the powerback who is not considered so explosive, is overrated. (Earl Campbell could run you over and break off big gains.) The point is just that the premium would not be on the player's results on the average plays, but instead on the longer ones. Some of this too can be the surrounding cast. Indeed, as Homer Smith has said, a runningback who gets 130 yards on 20 carries plays in a better offense (either because of him or for whatever other reason) than a guy who gets 145 on 35 carries.
But this does all assume that average yards per carry is the most important stat. I'm not sure all would agree that it is. (In fact, I think the PFR Blog folks might not agree, as they ranked runningbacks and included their total carries and pure total yards as a key factor.) I'm not convinced that more carries means a better back or better running game, as that depends on the game situation (does the team get a lot of leads?) and also that the play-calling is optimal. I can also buy that on 3rd and 3, or third and goal, the point is to convert, not to help the average.
Yet then how else can we evaluate running backs, or even a running game more generally? A perusal of the best offenses and running games in college tends to show that the best all have high yards per carry; not too many BCS teams have averaged fewer than 4.5 yards per carry, and several have averaged well over five yards per rush attempt (including sacks, which count against the run game total in college).
So I'm opening the floor to better ideas. IF yards per attempt is the best metric (for either an individual back or a team's run game), and IF the median truly is right around 3 yards for great and average backs alike, then the difference between good and mediocre runningbacks and rushing teams would seem to be wholly in the explosiveness of the upper 50% of plays: a good team or player can rip off big gains, and turn big gains into touchdowns, while the average plays for both is about the same. (And maybe negative plays are overrated.)
But I'm interesting in everyone's thoughts on this question. How do you evaluate the running game?