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Monday, August 17, 2009
So check it out, and continue to show up, as there won't be anymore new content here on Blogspot (though all the archives will remain).
Thursday, August 13, 2009
A few minor coaching points:
- All receivers must master -- and I mean master -- at least two of these release moves. At the NFL level, you need three if not more. But all receivers, college and high school, need to be masters of two and competent at three or four. Don't forget to use hands.
- The best release move in the world is useless if you don't get back on top of the defender. The receiver wants to run his route literally behind and through the DB -- as a result he wants the DB to move his feet, so that the receiver, although making moves, more or less runs in a straight line. If the receiver has to run in or out to get into his route he's losing.
- If you can stop, you can get open. All receivers must learn to stop immediately while in full speed. If you can stop in two short steps, you can always be open. On deeper routes, it might take three, but stopping -- slamming on the breaks -- is the key to cutting, breaking either direction, and just getting open generally.
- Ron Jenkins doesn't really discuss it, but one imperative technique is to learn to "lean into" the defense back at the top of the routes. If you're running an out against press man, once you hit about 10-12 yards you should be "leaning into" the defensive back before you break and separate away. Somewhat counterintuitively, on some of these routes you do want to be near the defender before breaking away at the last minute, and never too early. But this lean will get the defender's center of gravity and momentum going in the wrong direction. Mike Leach is famous for this coaching point.
- Some routes (and route concepts) call for sharp breaks, others for more rounded but quicker "speed cuts," which aren't quite as precise but the receiver doesn't slow down as much. Know the difference, and always know which is appropriate.
I want to address an age-old water cooler question that Chris discussed in his post at Smart Football. Consider two RBs, both with identical YPC averages. One however, is a boom and bust guy, like Barry Sanders, and the other is a steady plodder like Jerome Bettis. Which kind of RB would you rather have on your team?
The answer is it depends. Essentially, we have a choice between a high-variance RB and a low-variance RB. When a team is an underdog team, it wants high-variance intermediate outcomes to maximize its chances of winning. And when a team is a favorite, it wants low-variance outcomes. Whether those outcomes occur through play selection, through 4th down doctrine, or through RB style, isn't important. If you're an otherwise below-average team, you'd want the boom and bust style RB. If you're an otherwise above-average team, you'd want the steady plodder. . . .
Further, even if the high-variance RB has a lower average YPC, we'd still want him carrying the ball when we're losing. This is due to the math involved in competing probability distributions.
That's just one aspect of it. He uses a handy chart for the distribution of runs for the various backs...
...and notes how curious it is that Tomlinson's distribution looks so much like that of the rest of the NFL. (This same thing ends up holding true for most backs.) What conclusions does Burke draw? With the usual caveats,
[w]hat amazes me is how similar they all are to each other and to the league average. . . . Usually, a RB needs 4 to 5 yards to just break even in terms of his team's probability of converting a first down. What we'd want to see on a RB's distribution is as much probability mass as possible to the right of 4 yards.
So if [Jerome] Bettis' distribution looks so much like Tomlinson's, how does Bettis have a 3.9 career YPC and Tomlinson have a 4.4 career YPC? As others have noted previously, the difference among RB YPC numbers primarily come from big runs. It's the open field breakaway ability that separates the guys with big YPC stats from the other RBs. Of Tomlinson's runs, 1.5% were for 30 yards or more. Bettis' 30+ yd gains comprised only 0.46% of his carries. The other RBs and the league average are as follows:
- NFL 0.91%
- [Jamal] Lewis 0.88%
- [Brian] Westbrook 0.93%
- [Adrian] Peterson 2.20%
Adrian Peterson's 2.2% figure is exceptional. It's interesting because it really suggests that what separates Peterson as a great runner is based on only 2% or so of his runs. Otherwise, he's practically average.
2. Courtesy of Brophy, I have added video of Mike Leach's "settle & noose" drill, which, it will be recalled, is both a great warm-up drill and works on teaching receivers to find holes in the zone and quarterbacks how to deliver the ball to them.
3. Tom Brady muses on life with Bill Belichick. As he tells Details:
"You'll practice on a Wednesday, and you'll come in Thursday morning and he'll have the film up there from practice," Brady says. "Sometimes, during practice, you throw a bad ball—that's the way it goes. But the video comes up and he says, 'Brady, you can't complete a g--damn hitch.' And I'll be sitting there thinking, I'm a [expletive] nine-year veteran, I've won three ---damn Super Bowls — he can kiss my... That's what you're thinking on the inside. But on the outside I'm thinking, You know what? I'm glad he's saying that. I'm glad that's what he's expecting, you know? Because that's what I should be expecting. That's what his style is."
(Ht Shutdown Corner).
4. Bruce Feldman chats with Norm Chow, who materializes into matter from various spectral rays to participate.
5. The NY Times's The Quad Blog chats with Dan Shanoff about, what else, his Tim Teblow blog.
6. Spencer Hall/Orson Swindle to SB Nation. When you get $7 million from Comcast, you better find ways to spend it, and I can't think of a better way than for SBNation (whose official name is "Sportsblogs, Inc.") to lure Every Day Should Be Saturday's Spencer Hall over, including away from the Sporting News. I like everyone else think this is a wise move for both sides, but one underrated aspect is that Mr. Hall/Swindle (Mr. Hall-Swindle? I kind of like that) will be able to focus on just one blog (and probably a book too), which should really let him flourish.
7. Holly over at Dr Saturday remembers Northwestern's magical 1995 season, which is still the only 10 win season in school history. This was a sort of epoch-changing season for NW -- though that is a very relative statement -- in that the Wildcats' history since has been considerably better. Indeed, two years later I saw them play in the Citrus Bowl against Tennessee (this was back in the "You can't spell Citrus without UT" days). Though, most of that game was spent marveling at the show Peyton Manning put on (408 yards, 4 touchdowns, no interceptions) as I sat there telling everyone around me what Peyton Manning's audibles would be (for some reason Northwestern thought it could play man coverage against Tennessee's receivers, so he kept checking to fades and slants). In any event, it is hard to overstate how strange but wonderful that 1995 season was for Northwestern. In football, sometimes the gods are with you.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
As an example, one coach recently asked, "Realistically, how much of a problem does a TE as a pass blocker pose in modern football?" He went on to say, "I say this because now that everyone's trying to go to some type of spread and put as many small, quick guys on the field as possible, TEs are becoming an almost endangered species on teams who want to throw." There were other observations about the ongoing usefulness of the tight-end position. Although I agree that just holding up a freak like Antonio Gates doesn't get you far (good luck finding those), I do not think the position is so useless or impractical as some have implied. (Beware, this post is kind of wonky and technical.)
Homer Smith discussed the role of the TE/H-back as a triple threat: he can block, release vertical (in a way that a back cannot), and can block for a few counts and release on a delayed pass, and therefore make two guys cover him. Here is what Homer Smith explained:
It takes a sixth frontal player (not counting the QB) to pull an identifiable pass defender into the front and to give the blockers something to work with to keep the center off the island. It takes the sixth, just as it takes him to deal with a blitz.
Which is a better sixth [blocker, a tight-end or a runningback]? A TE is more of a threat with the delayed pass that makes the pass defender on him stay at bay while the TE blocks the rusher. I think a TE is the better.
Anyway, this is not so black and white, RB versus TE. It's all shades: imagine lining up with a FB in the I. Now the FB cheats over; he lines up in a two-point stance, behind the guard at 4 yards. Now behind the tackle at 3 yards. Now he splits the tackle with his inside leg, at about 2 yards. What is he? A FB or an H-back? He can BOB the linebacker, no? He can still kick out for power, release into the flat, maybe even take a handoff if he comes inside enough. Now he steps over maybe another foot, etc. Now suddenly he's a tight-end/h-back all the way? And all those advantages are lost?
Also don't confuse personnel with position. You can put anyone you want there. I don't see why your RB is some invaluable pass blocker, despite the fact that he has to work on carrying the ball, catching the ball, and blocking in the run game, while the TE is just helpless?
Nothing wrong in HS in having a division of labor for these positions. On most teams I've been around, the TEs spend more time practicing with the OL than they do the receivers. If you want a glorified slot guy, then sub a receiver in and go from there. Or use a FB type (if you're got one).
Bottom line: it's an exceptionally useful thing, and don't be straitjacketed by black and white conceptions. The advantage of the four wide spread was a division of labor thing -- you could put four wides out there and get mismatches against the other team's base personnel, and often get them out of their base looks. You might not have a good TE or fb, so you didn't put one out there; you looked for advantages elsewhere. Nowadays with everyone being spread, is that really the case that just going four wide gives you all these mismatches? I'm not so sure; using a TE -- or alternating between TEs, FBs, and slot receivers -- seems to me the better move.
I consider my base offense to be 3 WR, 1 QB, 1 RB, and then a hybrid H-back position. That H-back position can be a true slot receiver (routes and jet sweeps), a FB, a true TE/H-back (either as a blocker or hybrid guy, though those are quite rare), or even just a 2nd RB. Depends on the guys you have, what you're trying to accomplish, and also your depth (can do a lot of great things if you have a couple of kids who fit the above descriptions and then just sub them in and out to give different looks).
But unquestionably, TE is maybe my favorite position. True, it's not always easy to find a good one, but it helps a lot. (And the two best formations in football might be trips closed and a TE/wing set, with a TE and a wing player to one side, and either a split end and flanker or a twins look).
Finally, one of the concerns was that a tight-end is in poor position to pass protect:
To me, a RB who starts out deeper in the backfield is in much better position to pick up blitzers, chip DEs, or even take a DE 1-on-1. . . . Now, compare that to a TE, who is always on the end of the line and is really only in position to pick up somebody coming off the edge. He also has far less time and room for error in diagnosing a blitz or stunt and getting his body where he needs to be.
I disagree; it is best not to overthink this. One, if you're having that many problems you can always back the TE up to be an H-back so he can see more. Second, you can make a very simple call ("solid") if the DE lines up on or outside the TE and the LB lines up inside. If both the DE and LB come (and don't twist) the tackle takes the LB and the TE takes the DE; if the LB doesn't rush then the TE passes the DE off to the tackle before releasing. You do get into the matchup issues, but it's not so ridiculous like he can't get there or will just whiff. It's just a simple area principle.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Monday, August 10, 2009
Freep FOIA findings:
Feagin told investigators that “when I first started going to (Burke’s) house he had three big jars of weed up in his room. … One day T.J. was talking to me about some illegal stuff. He was under a lot of pressure because of his financial problems.
“I told him that I knew someone who could get him some cocaine. A few days later he asked me if I had talked to the person yet. I called right then and set up a deal.”
Feagin arranged to send $600 to a friend in Florida, whom he identified only as “Tragic.” In exchange, “Tragic” would send an ounce of cocaine to Ann Arbor.
It goes on from there. No cocaine ever showed up, this Burke guy tried to scare/murder Feagin by filling a bottle with gasoline and setting it on fire outside his dorm room, etc, etc, etc. You know, typical college stuff. . . . TJ Burke does what he wants, which is apparently spend up to ten years in prison.
Feagin was a last-minute addition to Michigan's first class under Rodriguez when it became clear that Rodriguez wasn't likely to acquire a higher-rated quarterback recruit. He did not work out, obviously. The Freep article dryly notes that Feagin "struggled to learn the playbook" mere paragraphs after describing Feagin's extensive marijuana habit. . . .
But seriously: it's bad. It's also one guy that Michigan apparently didn't run as thorough of a background check on—or possibly any background check on—as they scrambled to reconfigure Rodriguez's first recruiting class. As long as the incident remains isolated, fine. . . .
2. Mark Sanchez might win the Jets' job, but is he crossing over from confident to arrogant?
3. The NY Times Fifth Down Blog remembers Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson (and includes your humble blogger in its roundup).
4. The pro-football reference blog with Part III of its quest to rank the greatest QBs of all time.
5. Steve Spurrier is very upset: "We've got a lot of guys, I don't even know if they like football." (Ht Blutarsky.)
6. Saurian Sagacity looks at statistical characteristics of BCS champions. This is good and fine, but as Dr Saturday pointed out, the BCS winner hasn't always been the "best" team over time, or even in a given year. This is not a BCS knock -- and on this score I don't think a playoff would reduce the randomness of who gets crowned champion -- but it's worth remembering.
6. The end of the postal service?
7. Callers, tossers, and the odds of the flip.
8. History of the Times New Roman typeface.
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
It's been a bit since my last installment, but I'm not quite done, as there are two concepts left in the fearsome foursome of the 'shoot. This foursome includes: go, choice, and now streak and switch.
These two plays really do not involve any new learning, and although considered separate plays, they really are two sides of the same coin: four verticals, which I analyzed recently with Dan Gonzalez. I begin with "streak." The switch will come in the next installment.
At core, streak is just what the run and shoot guys call "four verticals." And four-verticals is a very simple concept that is so powerful because well designed pass plays boil down to elementary math: geometry and arithmetic. Four receivers bolt down the field, and if they keep the proper spacing between them -- by staying on their "landmarks" -- the defense will be outnumbered and can't properly defend the play. Against Cover Two, well, the defense only has two deep (hence the name) while the offense has four receivers deep. With cover three, well the offense still has a man advantage. And, again, if the spacing is correct, the offense can even whittle it down so that they know who they are operating against, namely, the deep free safety.
But this doesn't mean that the defense is without options. They can disguise coverage, play different techniques, or quite simple play four deep -- four on four gives the advantage to the defense. (Contra Ron Jaworski, creating favorably one-on-one matchups lags far behind creating favorable numbers advantages, i.e. two on one defend.) In response, the run and shoot, as usual, gives them freedom. Hence, the "seam read" all over again.
As the diagram above shows, the four receivers all release vertically. But the coaching points are critical:
The outside receivers, if they can't get deep, will break the route down and "come down the stem" -- retrace their steps -- to get open later. The QB, if the initial reads are not there, will hitch up and throw them the ball on the outside.
But the key to this play, as it has been for all four of these "core" run and shoot plays, is the seam read. I previously described this route in detail, but in sum: against a defense with the deep middle of the field "open" (cover two), the receiver will split the two safeties on a post route; against middle of the field closed (cover 3, cover 1), with a single deep middle safety, the receiver will stay away from him and continue up the seam. In that sense the route is a lot like the divide route I've discussed before. But the route is more dynamic: if the safeties stay very deep, or any defender crosses the receiver's face, he will cut inside or underneath those defenders to get open.
Below are a few clips courtesy of Michael Drake again. In this first video the quarterback, though a bit slow, hits the seam read.
On this second video, the defense is in a blitz look. (Sort of Cover 1 with a "rat" or floater, though no deep safety.) The receiver probably should have crossed the defender's face, but they are able to complete it.
And below is a clip of four-verticals where it gets dumped off to the runningback.
Finally, below is video of Texas Tech running the play (courtesy of Trojan Football Analysis). I end with this both because Tech of course is not exactly a run & shoot team, but also because some of the variants shown on the video -- particularly the shallow cross -- are things a lot of R&S coaches have gone to, including June Jones.
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
[o]f the five starters Leach has trotted out in nine years, every one has topped 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in a season; even in terms of efficiency as opposed to straight cumulative totals, they've been remarkably consistent from year to year.
He also notes that it's unlikely that Texas Tech will quite reach the heights they did last year, and that "[u]nless the stars align for the new kids in some unforeseen, improbably way, even 4,200 yards and 35 touchdowns could feel like the first hints of stagnation in the success story." Quite likely. But how has Leach continued to produce such wildly successful (in terms of stats, at least) quarterback?
One answer is "the system," but let's get more specific. The Captain has frequently noted that his system is all stuff that's been done before. Indeed, what is remarkable is that guys can seem to leap off the bench and do nothing but throw completions. He had one of the great three-year runs, where, defying the common spread/passing offense wisdom of playing your younger guy so they can get some experience, he rode three fifth-year senior quarterbacks to great heights (and, again, stats).
My explanation, and I think Leach would agree with me, is how the Red Raiders practice. One, they obviously do not run the ball much so all the focus is on throwing and catching, every day. Leach also does not believe in traditional stretching; rather he begins practices with medium speed drills that work on techniques like settling in the windows between zones and dropping back and throwing. Everything is focused on throwing the ball. Bob Davie visited Texas Tech a few years ago, and was blown away by what he saw:
Last year, Tech averaged 60 passes a game so it is obviously not a balanced attack, but this actually works in their favor. In practice, they spend virtually all their time focusing on fundamentals related to the passing game. From the time they hit the practice field until they leave, the ball is in the air and the emphasis in on throwing, catching and protecting the quarterback.
It takes great confidence in your scheme to be able to take this approach, but the players appreciate it because they can focus on execution.
Practice -- What's Different
When you watch Texas Tech practice, it doesn't seem as structured as most college practices. They do not stretch as a team and unlike most practices, there is not a horn blowing every five minutes to change drills. The bottom line is that the cosmetic appearance of practice is not as important to Leach as it is to some coaches.
Although not as structured, it is impressive to watch Texas Tech practice and you quickly see why it is so successful. The ball is always in the air and what the Red Raiders practice is what you see them do in a game. They work on every phase of their package every day and in most passing drills, there are four quarterbacks throwing and every eligible receiver catching on each snap.
There is great detail given to fundamentals in all phases of the passing game. Wide receivers, for example, work every day on releases versus different coverages, ball security, scrambling drills, blocking and routes versus specific coverages.
Davie is referencing some of the specific "Airraid" passing drills -- the real secret to the scheme's success. The main drills are:
- Settle-noose: This is basically a warm-up drill. The receivers begin out quarter speed and shuffle between two cones, "settling" nearer to one than the other, as if they were two zone defenders. The quarterback takes a drop -- again, reduced speed -- and throws the ball, aiming for the receiver but away from the nearer "defender." The receiver uses good catching form and bursts upfield after making the catch. You can see how this simple drill sets up the entire theory of their offense, which relies on finding seams in the zones and quarterbacks throwing between defenders. Check out the video below, courtesy of Brophy:
- Pat-n-go: This is another simple drill. Most teams use a form of "route lines," or quarterbacks dropping and receivers running routes on "air" -- i.e. with no defenders. The one clever insight here is that one group of QBs and receivers lines up on opposite from another. This way they can complete a pass, have the receiver burst as if scoring, and simply get in line on the opposite side of the field, rather than have to run back through. Just another way they get more repetitions.
- Routes on air: Probably their best drill. The coaches line up garbage cans or bags or whathaveyou where defenders would drop for a zone. Then all five receivers and/or runningbacks line up, and they call a play. Five quarterbacks (or four and a manager, etc) each drop back and throw the ball to a receiver. Here's the deal: if you're the QB who should throw it to the first read, you drop back and throw it to him. If you are assigned to the third read, well you drop back, look at #1, then #2, then #3 and throw it to him. Same goes for #2, #4, and even #5. Moreover, every receiver who runs the route catches a ball and practices scoring. Then the quarterbacks rotate over -- i.e. if you threw it to #2 now you throw it to #3, etc -- and a new group of receivers steps in. This way quarterbacks absolutely learn all their reads and practice it every day (how many reps like this does the third or fourth string guy at another school get?), and they also practice throwing it to all their receivers. Each time they do this
- 7-on-7 and man-to-man: These are what they sound like, and most do these drills. One-on-one or man-to-man involves the receivers going against press man in practice, while 7-on-7 is like a real scrimmage, minus the linemen.
Tech gets an amazing amount of repetitions in practice and most importantly, it doesn't waste reps practicing things they don't do in a game.Indeed, if you're third-string quarterback at Texas Tech, I can't imagine a program whose third-stringer gets more reps than you. Same goes for second-string, third-string, etc. Now, games are certainly different -- Tech's defense has never been confused with Texas's or Oklahoma's -- but these drills, coupled with their total commitment to throwing the ball, is a big factor in Leach's ability to churn out successful quarterbacks.
Sunday, August 02, 2009
One, I really am more interested in running games, or a team's ability to run, than I am in one runningback versus another. I definitely play fantasy football myself, but it's not the reason I get interested in football stats. Instead I want to know how good an offense is, and then secondarily how good a particular play is; whether Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith is better is usually not a discussion I get into. As a result I don't mind so much that it's hard to disassociate how good a runningback is from how good the line is, or the faking, etc. From an evaluation perspective, if you can analyze one play being better than another, then you can pretty easily ask if it is scheme or execution, and thus concepts or players.
Second, I do prefer to focus on easily observable stats. Some of this is maybe my laziness, but that's one big appeal of yards per carry: I know it has little application on third down. (One yard could be a success if it converts for a first down, and eight yards could be a failure if it was third and ten -- but then what if the draw was a good call rather than an interception or a sack? I digress.) That is just mainly aimed at seemingly interesting stats that would be a practical nightmare, based on every play and then a subjective interpretation of how many guys he bounced off of or his vision and cutback versus contact, etc -- you get the idea.
Anyway, Bill Connelly of Football Outsiders (and RockMNation) had actually discussed this fairly recently:
Regular Varsity Numbers readers have probably become familiar with some of the basic VN concepts, namely PPP (Points Per Play) and the "+". PPP is a measure of explosiveness--the amount of Equivalent Points (EqPts) averaged per play. The "+" number compares an offense's output to the output expected against a given defense, and vice versa. With the "+" number, 100 is average, anything above 100 is good, and anything below 100 is bad.
Points Over Expected
Is there any way to use these concepts to come up with a good rushing measure? Of course! Meet POE (Points Over Expected), the collegiate stepchild of DYAR. Whereas a rusher's PPP+ would compare his EqPts output to what would be expected, and is therefore great for measuring an offense's overall effectiveness, POE is cumulative. It is a comparison of a rusher's total EqPts to the Expected EqPt total, subtracting the latter from the former.
POE = EqPts - Expected EqPts. . . .
Most Varsity Numbers measures, in one way or another, bounce output versus expected output. POE, a brother to PPP and cousin to S&P and S&P+, does just that. POE, which intends to both evaluate both per-play and cumulative success, could also be used to evaluate receivers and tight ends, but that will be hard without good "pass intended for _____" data (some college play-by-plays record detailed information in this regard, others do not). Right now, it is an RB-only figure, but it is a pretty good one.
Not sure I entirely buy this as the best method (requires getting into the nitty gritty of FO's methods), but overall this is a good starting spot. It tends to reward the explosive players.
Moving to the comments, a few highlights, though all were excellent. Brad said:
I don't think getting long runs is the only way a back can improve his average. He can also do so by getting less short gains.
Think of a back that gets 3 yds minimum on slightly over half of his carries and gets 6 yds on the rest. Then compare him to a back that gets loses a yard on a third of his carries gets 3 yards on a third of his carries and gains 10 yards on a third of his carries.
Both backs have a median rush of 3 yds, but the first back averages around 5 yds per carry while the second one averages only 4. However the second back clearly has more "Big play potential" because he gains 10 yards on 1/3 of his runs.
My point is that a back can improve his average vs median both by getting more long gains OR by having less short runs. Which of these two things that great backs do is a question for the data.
I should have conceptualized this better in the first place, because this helps explain why Reggie Bush has been such a mediocre rusher in the NFL. It's not his explosiveness (though he hasn't broken many very long runs), but his routine bad plays. It also is why Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders are so hard to compare: Barry's stat line was full of negative plays and small gains, but checkered with the spectacular long runs. Emmitt Smith, the opposite. (And I don't think with Barry it was all just jump and bad blocking; it was also just his running style. Do you think he would have fit in well with the Denver Broncos "one-cut-and-go" philosophy? People say "oh, if he had played for them he would have had 3,000 yards but I'm not so sure.)
Tom points me to another good bit from Football Outsiders, this time by Mike Tanier, quoted at length:
The 4.0-4.1 yard average is an arithmetic mean: add up all the yards, divide by the attempts. The arithmetic mean is easily skewed by extremes in data. A 75-yard run can increase a starting running back's rushing average by several tenths of a point by the end of a season. This skewing always increases rushing averages: there are several 50+ yard rushes every year, but no 50+ yard losses on running plays.
We all know that a few big plays can make a mediocre running back's rushing average look great. But how much effect do long gains have on the league rushing average? The best way to see this is to break down every running play by distance. . . . The table reveals a surprising fact: the mean carry may yield four yards, but the median carry yields only three yards, and the data distribution is centered at two yards. . . .
Over 20 percent of running plays gain zero or one yards. Factor in losses, and over one-fourth of all runs result in negative or negligible yardage. The rushing average for the plays in the -4-to-10 yard range in 2005 was 2.95 yards per attempt. Long runs make up only about nine percent of all rushing plays, but they increase the league rushing average by over 40 percent. . . .
As a way of negating the importance of team strength as well as studying the contrasts between rushing styles, let's examine a pair of teammates from 2005.
Last season, Tatum Bell gained 920 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Mike Anderson gained 1,014 yards but averaged just 4.2 yards per carry. Despite the wide disparity in yards per carry, DVOA and DPAR ranked Anderson as the better back. Anderson was 37.0 points above replacement level, Bell 16.4. Anderson was 20.3 percent better than the average back, Bell just 7.6 percent.
Bell's rushing average was inflated by several long runs: he had a 68, 67, and 55 yard run in 2005, plus several 35-yard runs. Anderson's longest carry of the season was 44 yards, and that was his only run longer than 25 yards. We all know that Bell is a "home run threat" while Anderson is more consistent. But is it really fair to downgrade Bell because of his long runs? We're inclined to downgrade Bell somewhat because so much of his value is contained in a few plays. But is that really fair? After all, gaining four yards at a time is great and all, but big plays are pretty important, too. . . .
Anderson's yardage distribution is centered in the 2-3 yard range, while Bell's is centered in the 1-2 yard range, giving Anderson a full yard-per-play advantage on carry after carry. Bell's advantage, of course, is on runs of more than 10 yards. All but 6.5 percent of Anderson's runs gain from -4 to 10 yards, while 10.5 percent of Bell's runs are outside the chart (he only lost five yards on one play last season). Give them both 200 carries, and Bell will have eight more long runs than Anderson, and those runs will be longer than what Anderson can usually muster. But Anderson will gain an extra yard that Bell couldn't on dozens of other
runs. . . .
Anderson's in-the-box mean was 3.36 yards per attempt, noting again that his "box" is larger. Bell's was just 2.67. What's interesting is that we tend to think of backs like Anderson as "ordinary" while backs with Bell's big-play potential are held in higher esteem. But Bell's rushing distribution is more in line with the league norms than Anderson's. He's very good, but his contributions are typical of what backs around the league provide. Anderson, at least in 2005, was the unique player, providing hard-to-get, down-in, down-out production.
The difference between Bell and Anderson suggests that "cloud of dust" backs are more valuable than "boom or bust" backs, but we must be careful when using cheesy labels. Our perception of a back's production profile are often way off. How would you classify Marshall Faulk in his prime? Probably as a boom-or-bust back, albeit one with lots of boom and only a little bust.
But Faulk's running distributions show that in his prime he was much more than a big-play machine. . . .
Faulk's in-the-box mean was 3.37, a very good figure. What's more, his "box" only included 86 percent of his runs. Faulk had seven 12-yard runs, six 16-yard runs, and three 18-yard runs in 2000, giving him a very high percentage of 11-20 yard runs. But what's most remarkable about his production was his ability to avoid no-gainers and his above-average totals in the 3-5 yard range. Fast, shifty Faulk was just as good at using his skills to gain a yard or two as he was at burning defenses for long gains.
By contrast, [Jonathan] Stewart's ability to avoid losses and pick up two or three yards couldn't offset his complete lack of big-play potential. At first glance, Stewart's distribution looks similar to Anderson's. But his in-the-box mean of 2.8 is over a half-yard lower. The differences are subtle -- Anderson is a little more likely to gain five or six yards and a little less likely to lose yardage -- but they add up over a few hundred carries. And Stewart, like Anderson, concentrated 95 percent of his carries in the -4-to-10 yard range, so he had few 10-20 yard bursts to increase his productivity. Stewart, like Anderson, was providing a unique skill, which is why he was able to stay in the league for several years. Unlike Anderson, he wasn't a great exemplar of that skill, and the Football Outsiders metrics took him to task for it. . . .
Teams don't generate rushing yards in three-, four-, or five-yard bursts. They gain it through punctuated equilibrium, waiting through dozens of minimal gains for a few big plays per game.
And those big plays aren't that big. We've focused on gains of ten or less in this article, ignoring the 10.5 percent or so of plays that yield more yardage. The vast majority of those runs gain 11-20 yards: 6.9 percent overall. Almost 25 percent of the rushing yardage gained in the NFL is generated on runs of 11-20 yards. There were 960 such runs last year: 30 per team, or just over two per team per game. Amazingly nearly 10 percent of all rushing yardage is generated on runs of 30 or more yards, plays which occur about four times per year for a typical team.
These distribution breakdowns are so interesting that they might seduce us into making some wacky conclusions. Keep in mind that all of these averages and distribution patterns are situation dependent. . . .
Without further study, we shouldn't leap to grand conclusions. But we know this much: if we expect to gain four or five yards on every running play, we're going to be disappointed most of the time. No wonder passing totals have been creeping up for decades. If all a handoff gets you is two yards and a cloud of dust, you might as well throw the ball.
Lots going on here, but it mostly just reinforces what we know: Backs and teams have different styles, and it is not always easy to compare them; you want a guy who (a) does not lose yardage, (b) consistently gets positive yardage, and (c) is a big-play threat. They don't always come that way, so it is interesting that Tanier and FO conclude that the consistent back is simply better than the big-play threat. I'd like to see more to support that -- i.e. that the "dozens of first downs" or extra yards Anderson might have pulled down for the team were worth more than Tatum Bell's big plays. I'm not saying I disagree, but that it is interesting. That kind of conclusion could have troubling implications for a guy like, say, Barry Sanders, or moreso Reggie Bush.
Chase of the PFR Blog points out marginal yards, and adds:
I looked at rushing yards over 3.0 yards per carry. However, as the author has implied, I've begun shifting my focus away from yards per carry.
Rushing first downs is a key part of evaluating a running game. Without play by play information, I'd want to focus on rushing first downs, rushing yards, rushing TDs and carries.
I think this is good; rushing first downs should be part of the evaluation. According to CFBStats, last season's top first-down teams in college football are an expected bunch:
1. Air Force
4. Nevada (tie)
4. Oklahoma State (tie)
10. Georgia Tech
As a side note, I do think yards per carry is most useful on first down, and CFB Stats (as well as the pro-football reference site), has a ready breakdown of rushing stats by down, for all teams. For example, the yards per carry of the top 5 teams in the country last year, limited solely to first down, were:
1. Nevada 6.95
2. Louisiana-Lafayette 6.77
3. Florida 6.76
4. Navy 1843 6.12
5. Oregon 1676 5.96
Each team had over 1,600 yards on first down alone (everyone bud Oregon had over 1,800, and Nevada over 2,000). And those averages -- yes I just pasted that thing from FO saying you can't solely look at averages -- indicates that these teams had a lot of favorable down and distances to convert (Louisiana-Lafayette, the one seemingly strange entry, was in the top 15 of total offense last year despite not being a great throwing team).
In the end ... I have to think about this question some more. I think we're moving in the right direction, as, again, part of my motivation is to find handy and easy to use stats (thus one reason I dislike the idea of some kind of "running back efficiency rating" like they use with quarterbacks). I agree that the debate is going to be between styles of running game (or running back), as well as situation. I would imagine that teams like Oregon or Georgia Tech are going to have much different looking rushing distributions than, say, Wisconsin. But we're on our way down the path to the end.
End note: I'll be on vacation this week. I have a couple of posts set to go up, but otherwise I'll be out of pocket until next weekend/week. Cheers.