Who Really Won The Rushing Title In 2016?

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The NFL “Rushing Title” is an unofficial recognition of the most productive rusher of that season. This, naturally, is measured by total yards. Whoever rushed for the most yards gets the rushing title. Seems simple. In 2016, the top rushers were Ezekiel Elliott (1631), Jordan Howard (1313), Demarco Murray (1287), Jay Ajayi (1272) and Le’Veon Bell (1286). Zeke crushed the field. It’s worth noting that Le’Veon Bell only played 12 games in 2016, and extrapolated to a full season, would’ve ranked second.

But as I’ve said in many articles, podcasts and tweets, total yards are a bad stat. What I haven’t done is adequately explain why. They’re close to the industry standard when talking about running back, wide receiver or even total team production. If it’s so widely used, how can it be so bad?

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Simplicity, not accuracy, is at the root of the popularity of total yards. Yards are easy for fans, both hardcore and casual, to understand and consume. Whoever got their team the most progress was the best. Seems agreeable. But “progress” is a term that needs to be more specifically defined. A one-yard run is a yard of progress, but does it help your team more than it hurts? Of course not, because it cost an entire down. A nine-yard run is a good use of that cost, but one is not.

Generally, stats should be able to check four boxes, rewarding and punishing players like so:

[wptg_comparison_table id=”3″]

Good results should be punished, bad results should be rewarded. That seems simple, but it’s hard to achieve. Look at how total yards measures up:

[wptg_comparison_table id=”4″]

Total yards are fine with good results- solid gains or long breakaways are generally well-represented. But when it comes to short runs, the meat and potatoes of the running game, RBs are not properly represented. Only negative runs will punish the runner, and even those are mild in the context of their totals. A three yard loss is often a drive-killing play. A three yard gain has much lower impact, and not even a positive one. By total yards, those two cancel out. Similarly, two running backs can get a 20 yard carry, and that’s pretty good. But if one of those gets 10 more carries for one yard apiece, did he have a better game? After all, he had 30 yards to the other back’s 20. One final example- take two RBs, each with 30 yards. One got six 5-yarders, the other got 10 3-yarders. Are they playing at the same level? Or providing the same value to their team? Not to mention the importance of down & distance. A two yard run on 3rd & 1 is a lot different than a two yard run on 1st & 10.

These examples are not simply ignorable or distinguishable corner cases. Short runs, negative plays and 3rd downs show up in every game. Running back stats should not reward insufficient gains.

Dividing by attempts solves a lot of these problems. Since the number changes from a total to an average (i.e. the average run for this player gains X yards), a one yard run is now dragging that average down. In fact, any run that is below that player’s average drags it down. That’s a solid line to split between good plays and bad plays. Further, extreme results have a rightfully extreme effect. A 40 yard run is a great play, and has a great effect on Yards Per Attempt (YPA). It also differentiates between someone who took 30 carries to get to 100 yards and someone who only required 15.

By YPA, the best RB in the league was Mike Gillislee (5.7), followed by Bilal Powell (5.5), LeSean McCoy (5.4), Jordan Howard (5.2) and a tie between Mark Ingram and Ezekiel Elliott (5.1). This list seems very counterintuitive. Gillislee and Powell both had efficient seasons, though ranking Gillislee ahead of McCoy is going to raise some eyebrows. So we’re not done here.

There’s a huge name missing from this list. David Johnson (2118 yards from scrimmage) ranked among the upper echelons of any receiving player, let alone running backs. For the value he provided to the Cardinals, shouldn’t he be rewarded? Receiving is just as much a part of a running back’s game as rushing is in today’s NFL. In McCoy’s case, that’s 50 plays that are being ignored, and a solid chunk of his value to the Bills. The days of the pure-rushing Terrell Davis-type running back are over. Perhaps instead of the “Rushing Title”, a better award would be the “Running Back Title”.  If we count receiving yards and targets as rushing attempts, we can get a more complete picture. An incomplete pass hurts the team as much as a run for no gain, so those need to be counted as well.

By scrimmage yards per attempt, the winner would be Tevin Coleman (5.96), followed by Duke Johnson (5.93), James White (5.74), Mike Gillislee (5.60), and LeSean McCoy (5.58). This is a stat that heavily indicates the usefulness of “change of pace” backs like Johnson or James White. Bringing in a new style can disrupt a defense and force an unwanted change in their scheme or personnel. But these players are not the starters- if they were truly the best backs in the league, they’d undoubtedly be starting. That “change of pace” is obviously an advantage that a bellcow player like Zeke or Bell won’t have. So what about the bellcows? We should praise guys like Gillislee as solid equity backs, but guys like LeSean McCoy and Isaiah Crowell are providing more value week in and week out. Each team’s “starter”, logically, is the one who took the most snaps. Here’s how they line up.

Player Scrimmage Yards/Attempt
LeSean McCoy (BUF) 5.58
Ezekiel Elliott (DAL) 5.52
Chris Thompson (WAS) 5.42
Bilal Powell (NYJ) 5.41
Jordan Howard (CHI) 5.33
Le’Veon Bell (PIT) 5.31
Devonta Freeman (ATL) 5.28
Darren Sproles (PHI) 5.24
Mark Ingram (NO) 5.18
David Johnson (ARI) 5.13
Isaiah Crowell (CLE) 5.06
Jay Ajayi (MIA) 4.81
DeMarco Murray (TEN) 4.62
Carlos Hyde (SF) 4.60
Theo Riddick (DET) 4.58
Melvin Gordon (SD) 4.55
Jacquizz Rodgers (TB) 4.54
Latavius Murray (OAK) 4.42
Terrance West (BAL) 4.24
Frank Gore (IND) 4.20
Lamar Miller (HOU) 4.11
Jeremy Hill (CIN) 4.07
Devontae Booker (DEN) 4.00
Charcandrick West (KC) 3.94
T.J. Yeldon (JAX) 3.92
LeGarrette Blount (NE) 3.91
Christine Michael (SEA*) 3.90
Jerick McKinnon (MIN) 3.75
Jonathan Stewart (CAR) 3.70
Todd Gurley (LA) 3.61
Rashad Jennings (NYG) 3.56
James Starks (GB*) 3.17

*Note: Christine Michael’s number counts both his time in Seattle and Green Bay. James Starks was the listed RB in Green Bay, but Ty Montgomery should be given an honorable mention as he scored above 6 in Scrimmage YPA. Weird situation over there, but Packer fans should feel fine. The bastards.

The true rushing title goes to Shady McCoy, with Zeke close behind. There’s lots of interesting information in this result. The success of McCoy and Elliott is well-documented, but guys like Bilal Powell and Chris Thompson were similarly efficient. Perhaps the Redskins and Jets have more workable running games than they get credit for. David Johnson is hurt by his tremendous 413 plays- something that warps an offense, and is largely unsustainable over an entire career. Still, he would have been outgained by Ezekiel Elliott with anything less than 4.83 scrimmage YPA, so his season should be commended.

Quick Adrian Peterson note since this is a Vikings blog: his 2016 is obviously thrown out due to sample size and injury issues, but his 2015 scrimmage YPA was 4.7, which would rank 13th after Jay Ajayi. Despite rushing for more total yards than everyone but Zeke in 2016, his 363 total plays drag him down quite a bit.

It’s also worth considering two Football Outsiders metrics, DVOA and success rate. Both stats look at each play and measure them against a particular standard. In DVOA’s case, the standard is what an average runner accomplishes in that particular situation (i.e. down and distance), and success rate defines it as a certain percentage of the line-to-gain. More info in that link. Elliott fares very well in those carefully crafted metrics, so it’s not like this slight adjustment to YPA is the end-all-be-all. Far from it. There are also tape-purists out there who will vehemently defend Le’Veon Bell, and they have valid points as well.

The “Rushing Title” is meant to honor the most productive running back in the NFL. Determining who the most productive running back is should be decided by more than the total sum of their rushing. LeSean McCoy had a huge impact on the Bills as a receiver, and got his production with fewer opportunities than Ezekiel Elliott had. Any reasonable measure has Zeke near the top of the league regardless, which is still mythical for a rookie. Tape watchers and stat-heads alike can agree that Zeke can potentially rewrite the RB position, but when (rightfully) including receiving, McCoy edged him out. At least for this year.

Thanks for reading!

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