Sometimes we like to talk about a lot of numbers to make ourselves sound smart. So come with us, and embrace your inner stat nerd.
Running backs run with a football, and it’s their job to keep running and avoid the clutches of other large men who want to bring them down and/or hurt them with brute force.
Sounds rudimentary and simple, no? It is, until we try to determine who best fits that simple job description, and who excels at making opposing tacklers whiff.
It’s obviously Maurice Jones-Drew. That’s what you’re saying, because assumptions are easy. They’re also the devil, and so are girls. Sure, it’s certainly true that the pinball of fury otherwise known as MJD is a unique talent, and he easily led the league in rushing yards last year (1,606). But that doesn’t mean he was particularly skilled at making tacklers miss.
He wasn’t. He was good (very good), but not quite great, and that’s where he’s been over the past three years. A set of data published earlier this week by the advanced statistical wizards over at Pro Football Focus tells us that Jones-Drew has been only moderately elusive in the open field over the past three seasons, ranking him 12th on their “elusive rating.” That’s a pretty low perch for the best RB this past season.
Now, before we continue here I’m going to have to ask the curmudgeons in the crowd and the people who have their mind firmly adjusted to the closed position to bite down on a hard object while reading. This won’t be pleasant for you, but trust me, even I can understand the thinking behind these numbers, and I can barely do long division.
The elusive rating simply measures how often a running back avoids being tackled when defenders aren’t directly occupied by a blocker. This can be accomplished by powering through and over tacklers, by being shifty to continually find open space and make defenders miss, or by getting yards after contact.
The formula really isn’t that scary, I promise, and in this particular study by PFF, only players who’ve had at least 25 carries over the past three years qualified. That eliminated heavy pounders like LeGarrette Blount, who will surely factor high in a future analysis.
So brace for it, here’s the formula:
[(Missed Tackles Rush + Missed Tackles Rec) / (Rushes + Receptions)] * (Yards per Carry after Contact / Att. * 100)
See that’s not so bad, right? Now, as soon as you’re ready to climb out from under the desk, we’ll continue.
With 47 runners qualifying under the 25-carry restriction, that formula spit out a top 15 that contained some of the usual and expected suspects, and some surprises:
As a team, the Falcons finished sixth in the league in rushing last year, averaging 97.0 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry. While the offensive line has been consistently effective, it’s easy to see the source of the continued backfield galloping, as both Michael Turner and Jason Snelling rank in the top ten above, with Turner leading the league in yards after contact.
But then we begin to see just how much certain runners are perhaps compilers, and the differences in usage. Pierre Thomas has only 1,624 rushing yards since 2009 to MJD’s 3,321, yet the Saints RB still has an elusive rating that’s over four points higher. That’s partly due to a much better offensive line in New Orleans, but mostly it’s a result of Thomas often being given the ball on screen passes and short routes out of the backfield, plays that give him time to find and create open space.
A similar explanation can likely be used for Justin Forsett’s very random presence in the top 15, and that’s what makes this chart so intriguing. We’re immediately given an image of the usage of top running backs, with some utilized often in space mostly through the passing game, while others are leaned on to be mule workhorses all season.
What’s striking initially are the low rankings of Arian Foster (27th: 25.0), LeSean McCoy (21st: 27.5), Matt Forte (22th: 27.3), and especially the basement-occupying ranking of Ray Rice (37th: 20.2). Foster and McCoy may be dragged down by lesser totals and opportunities three years ago during their rookie seasons, but there should have still been ample yardage and missed tackles throughout the elite years that followed to supplement that shortage.
But again, the explanation is simple. Combined the four have rushed for 13,041 yards since 2009, and speed is their common bond.
Making tacklers miss isn’t necessary when they’re always behind you.