Sorry KC, Matt Forte is no Adrian Peterson

| July 21, 2011

Before I get started, I want to make it clear that I have all the respect in the world for KC Joyner. Like me, he’s an NFL-loving stat head. He’s excellent at what he does, which is how “The Football Scientist” landed a regular gig with ESPN.com.
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That being said, I take issue with a recent article he posted over at ESPN Insider.
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In the piece, Joyner claims that Bears tailback Matt Forte is “on the same level” as Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson. My immediate reaction to the headline was that there was no way this could be accurate, but trusting Joyner’s judgment, I was intrigued to read on.

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In the piece, Joyner focused on three main points, using 2008-2010 data as his basis:

  • Yards-per-attempt
  • Fumbles
  • Run Blocking

*Note: All statistics include playoff games.
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Fumbles / Run Blocking
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I took most exception to the YPA piece, so I’ll get to that later. First, though, I’ll quickly touch on fumbles and run blocking.
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Joyner focused on ‘fumbles lost’ in his piece, but I’ll be looking at fumbles in general. If we’re looking at 2008-through-2010 as a whole, Forte gets a massive edge here. He fumbled 10 times for a 1.0% Fumble/Touch rate, while Peterson lost the handle on 23 footballs, which is a rate of 2.0% F/T.
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I obviously can’t argue against the ’08-’10 data, but it’s worth considering that Peterson fumbled only twice in 2010, while Forte did three times. Peterson’s 0.6% F/T rate was one of the league’s best, showing that he improved in the fumble department. Forte’s 0.9% F/T mark in 2010 was still impressive, but I think it’s safe to say that Peterson is no longer well behind him in this category.
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I don’t have a ton of run blocking data in my arsenal, so I’ll give Joyner the benefit of the doubt here, except to point out that Pro Football Focus ranked the Bears run blocking a -61.0 (26th in the NFL) and the Vikings a -66.9 (28th in the NFL) in 2010. That tells us that both teams were pretty awful at giving its running backs room to run. In case you’re curious, PFF also shows the Vikings as the worst run blocking team in the league in 2009, while the Bears were middle of the pack. In 2008, the Vikings were much better, ranking 8th in the league, while the Bears struggled back in 26th.
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Yards-Per-Attempt

Now we get to the fun stuff.
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In the piece, Joyner tallied each player’s rushing and receiving yardage from 08-10 and divided that number by each player’s rush and target total. This gave him a ‘yards-per-attempt’ figure. His calculations show Peterson with a 4.8 YPA and Forte with a 4.6 mark. Joyner’s point here is that, although Peterson is ahead, Forte is closer than you might think.
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But, he’s really not.
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For starters, let’s break down the carry/target/yardage data.
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Att Yds YPA
P/R Ratio
Peterson Rushing 1032 4713 4.6 88%
Receiving 140 935 6.7 12%
Total 1172 5648 4.8
Forte Rushing 853 3389 4.0 79%
Receiving 222 1651 7.4 21%
Total 1075 5040 4.7

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Looking at the raw data, my numbers are right on track with Joyner’s. In fact, because we’re using playoff data, Forte is actually even closer to Peterson in the YPA department.
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The problem is that we aren’t digging deep enough yet. The first glaring issue here is a pretty obvious one. The NFL average YPC for a tailback is 4.3. The average yards-per-target is 6.4. Because Forte has 179 fewer carries and 82 more targets than Peterson since 2008, he has a huge head start in the YPA discussion. It’s much easier for running backs to accrue yardage via the passing game than it is on the ground.
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To show the impact this can have, check out our next chart.
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Att Yds YPA
P/R Ratio
Peterson Rushing 984.5 4496 4.6 84%
Receiving 187.5 1252 6.7 16%
Total 1172 5748 4.9
Forte Rushing 903 3588 4.0 84%
Receiving 172 1279 7.4 16%
Total 1075 4867 4.5

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Here we tweak the carries and targets for both players so that they work out to the exact same ratio. We see that Peterson jumps up to 4.9 and Forte falls to 4.5.
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Finally, if we apply Forte’s pass:run ratio to Peterson and vice versa, the gap becomes even wider. Peterson shoots up to 5.0 and Forte falls to 4.4.
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Att Yds YPA
P/R Ratio
Peterson Rushing 930 4247 4.6 79%
Receiving 242 1616 6.7 21%
Total 1172 5863 5.0
Forte Rushing 946.6 3761 4.0 88%
Receiving 128.4 955 7.4 12%
Total 1075 4716 4.4

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Moving on, we will not focus strictly on the receiving data for both players. The beauty of Pro Football Focus is that I have data at my fingertips that you can’t get anywhere else!
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That is why I can also argue that Matt Forte’s 0.7 yards-per-target lead over Adrian Peterson since 2008 is actually not a lead at all. In fact, Peterson is more productive on a per-target basis. How is that possible? A new statistic called average depth of target.
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It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that the reason NFL running backs average a much lower yards-per-reception (and yards-per-target) than wide receivers is because they are closer to the line of scrimmage when the ball is thrown their direction. It’s much easier to rack up 20 yards on one play if you catch the ball 20 yards down field than it is if you catch it two yards behind the line of scrimmage and run for 22 yards.
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That being the case, aDoT can help us remove the target location factor and focus only on the yardage accrued after the catch. Our next chart shows depth of target data from the last three seasons for each player.
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2008 2009 2010 Total
Peterson Targ 34 57 47 138
Rec 21 44 36 101
Yards 125 464 341 930
Depth 2 89 11 102
YAC 140 477 347 964
Yds/Targ 3.7 8.1 7.3 6.7
aDoT 0.1 1.6 0.2 0.7
YAC/Rec 6.7 10.8 9.6 9.5
2008 2009 2010 Total
Forte Targ 73 65 82 220
Rec 62 57 64 183
Yards 460 481 693 1634
Depth 137 29 334 500
YAC 430 518 607 1555
Yds/Targ 6.3 7.4 8.5 7.4
aDoT 1.9 0.4 4.1 2.3
YAC/Rec 6.9 9.1 9.5 8.5

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Focusing on the ‘Total’ column, we see that, although Forte has the edge over Peterson in the flawed yards-per-target category, Peterson enjoys a 1.0 edge in YAC/Reception. The reason for the discrepancy is aforementioned average depth of target. Forte has racked up 500 yards in depth of target over the last three years, while Peterson has enjoyed just 102. If we adjust for Forte’s 83% catch rate and Peterson’s 74% mark, we get what is essentially 339 of free yardage added to Forte’s receiving total.
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Next, we will return all the way back to our first chart of the day and remove the depth yardage from the total receiving.
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Att Yds YPA
P/R Ratio
Peterson Rushing 1032 4713 4.6 88%
Receiving 140 860 6.1 12%
Total 1172 5573 4.8
Forte Rushing 853 3389 4.0 79%
Receiving 222 1237 5.6 21%
Total 1075 4626 4.3

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When we recalculate, we see an even larger edge for Peterson, including a large lead in the YPT category. At this point, I don’t even need to apply the new numbers to the pass:ratios we analyzed earlier because, frankly, you get the point.
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At the end of the day, we really see how misleading raw data can be. Digging deeper into the stats and utilizing the unique data provided here at Pro Football Focus, we find that Matt Forte is no match for Adrian Peterson.
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  • woodg8

    You’ve not done anything but deal with false stats and imaginary scenarios.

    KC Joyner dealt with he pure facts, and his article is far more correct than this one.

    • http://www.profootballfocus.com Mike Clay

      Every test I ran was based solely off statistics, but feel free to give me some examples of what you’re talking about.

  • SpeedKills2823

    I think what he’s saying is that the reason Forté is considered good to great is because he can do it all and be put in those situations but your article basically just took that all away. Petersons still the better runner but it’s a little closer with everything Forté can do.

  • borgesandme

    Why do you people think Mike Clay doesn’t understand the article? I like the new stat, I wonder how this would measure out if more running backs were included.