Rushing yards and touchdowns are nice, but they can’t separate the job of the running back from the blocking in front of him, and many times are more indicative of the offense in general than the individual runner.
At Pro Football Focus we try and go deeper than that, and the Elusive Rating Signature Stat is our attempt at isolating the performance of a runner from his blockers by looking at what he does on each play.
Yards After Contact
When looking at a running back’s work beyond his blockers, one of the measures that is factored into the Elusive Rating formula is his yards after contact on rushing plays. Two players were way out ahead of the pack in terms of total yards after contact, with Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner both rushing for over 900 yards after being met by the first defender. That’s significantly more than 50% of the total rushing output for both players, but neither ranked inside the Top 5 in terms of yards after contact per rush. Topping that list was Buffalo’s Fred Jackson, who managed 3.75 yards per carry after contact, the best mark in the NFL by a margin, and almost a full yard more per carry than most running backs.
At the tailing end of the scale, we see Thomas Jones, who really should be used as some form of offensive line calibration tool, because he gets exactly what is there, and very little else. He was able to record just 1.4 yards after contact per carry, which is more than half a yard worse than any other running back in the study. Interestingly for Cincinnati, they appear to be trading one player from the Bottom 5 for another, with both Cedric Benson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis posting identical figures in average yards after contact.
One of the players in line to replace Green-Ellis in New England is all the way back at the top end of the scale, inside the Top 10. Stevan Ridley had just 87 carries in the 2011 regular season, but averaged over three yards per carry after contact, a full yard more than the player whose carries he may be receiving in 2012.
Perhaps the most interesting thing this list throws up, though, is the after-contact work done by Darren Sproles. Sproles is often seen as just a return man and a scat back; great in space, but not likely to break anything open if that space isn’t there. He posted the second-best mark in the NFL with 3.67 yards per run coming after contact. He is certainly not asked to pound it much between the tackles, and so the contact that he receives is always substantially less likely than having to fight through defensive tackles, but it’s a point worth making, nonetheless.
The next step toward honing in on a running back’s performance is how many times he forces missed tackles. This can range from running right through a would-be tackler, to juking a guy out of his jock and running clean past him without making strong contact. These missed tackles don’t necessarily have to include contact for that reason, but almost always do.
Michael Turner again found himself at the sharp end of this particular statistic, leading the league with a massive 62 missed tackles forced on his runs, and another five on receptions out of the backfield. That total of 67 wasn’t just a league-leading mark in 2011, but it is comfortably the highest mark we have tallied since we’ve been recording the statistic, beating the previous mark of 63 set by DeAngelo Williams in 2008. Turner is given a massive workload by the Falcons, and he may not be the explosive breakaway threat some other runners are, but he does an incredible amount of the heavy lifting all by himself, and his work this season with the Falcons’ offensive line weaker than in previous years speaks volumes of his quality.
LeSean McCoy and Jones-Drew both posted 58 total missed tackles forced and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch was only one behind with 57, but perhaps the most impressive mark was from Jonathan Stewart of the Panthers. Stewart only carried the ball 142 times (less than half of the carries of some of the players ahead of him, but he forced 32 missed tackles as a runner and added another 20 on his receptions for a total of 52. The Panthers have brought in Mike Tolbert in free agency this year to potentially replace Stewart if they can’t lock him down long-term, but they may not fully appreciate exactly how capable he is of making plays independent of the blocking in front of him. If Stewart makes it to the open market next offseason, he may not be in line for big money given the way running backs are viewed in today’s league, but he will make a huge impact wherever he ends up.
With his standing reservation at the other end of the table, we again encounter Thomas Jones, who set new benchmarks for futility. Jones touched the ball 158 times last season, and was able to force just five missed tackles, an astoundingly poor mark that goes a long way to explaining why he was our lowest-graded runner on the season with a -5.4. He was never a back that did a lot by himself, but over the past few seasons Jones has lost what athletic ability he once had, and now remains a player who merely picks the right holes and advances the football until the blocking reaches its end.
The Elusive Rating
The magic formula: (MTrush + MTrec) / (Rec + Att) * (YCo / Att * 100)
We’ve now been running the Elusive Rating numbers for four seasons, and there have been a few names that consistently appear near the top of the rankings, usually players that at one time or another have been classed as ‘underrated’. Pierre Thomas has showed consistently well, as have Fred Jackson and Jonathan Stewart. All three of those players again cracked the Top 10 in 2011, with Thomas in eighth position, again topping a crowded Saints backfield. Jackson and Stewart took things to another level and finished the season 1-2 in the NFL. Stewart had a rating of 81.2 and Jackson 80.7, as the pair were way out ahead of the pack. Turner ranked third with a rating more than fifteen points lower at 64.3–his rating dragged down by sheer weight of carries as the workhorse of the Atlanta backfield.
Jackson’s season in particular deserves some focus, because he was leading the way in the Elusive Rating standings for much of the season until injury ended his year prematurely. He had been coming back to the pack a little before he went down, but it’s a pity that we didn’t get to see what he could have achieved had he stayed healthy all season. Stewart is a regular in the Top 5 of the study and his value is only reinforced with a second ER title in four seasons.
This season, the top of the table was bereft of heavy-workload running backs, as the league trends back toward backfields by committee. Turner is the only one in the Top 10 to have more than 200 carries, and many of the league’s most-worked runners aligned at the foot of the chart. It is a testament to the performances of both Turner and Jones-Drew–the only pair of runners this season to top 300 carries–that they both scored so well in the Elusive Rating.
Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount may have fallen out of favor with Raheem Morris, but after tearing up the league in 2010, he again showed well despite being kept off the field more than he should have been this season. Blount forced 41 total missed tackles (most of which seemed to come against the Packers on a single run), and notched 2.9 yards per carry after contact. He may not be an accomplished receiver out of the backfield or the best blocking back in the league, but he is too big a weapon for the Bucs to be keeping him on the bench, especially as a punitive measure for fumbling.
It goes without saying at this point that the table is propped up by Thomas Jones, and he is some way adrift of the rest of the pack with an Elusive Rating of 4.5; 10 clear points below anybody else. Five other players scored an Elusive Rating under 20, and three of them have been looking for new teams this offseason. Ricky Williams has retired from the NFL, perhaps at the right time given his showing last season, but Cedric Benson, Joseph Addai, and Peyton Hillis were all free agents, and two of them remain on the market with minimal interest. Hillis is the only one to be signed, and he has been given some slack due to how much of last season he played hurt.
Looking to the Future
In the past, the Elusive Rating has shown some predictive ability. Distilling a runner’s performance from the offensive line allows you to have an idea what will happen to that player’s production if anything happens to the blocking in front of him, good or bad. A player that carries a poor Elusive Rating may put up impressive statistics one year rushing behind a good blocking unit, but then find that blocking disappear the next season and be unable to take up the slack.
Michael Bush put up healthy numbers last season for the Raiders and was given healthy money this season by the Chicago Bears, who may be seeking to place leverage on Matt Forte in his contract negotiations. While the Raiders had a reasonable offensive line, the Bears had a terrible unit last year, and yet Forte ranked just outside the Top 10 with an ER of 52.6. By contrast, and despite the much better blocking in front of him, Bush managed a rating of just 20.2. Chicago might be looking for Bush to help them prove they can move the ball well without Forte, but unless the line improves dramatically, they’re likely to find out just how impressive Forte has been in that environment.
It’s tough to evaluate the performance of a running back statistically, and numbers aren’t everything in the NFL, but looking at the right ones certainly helps. Below are the best and worst among qualifying runners in PFF’s 2011 Elusive Rating:
Top 15, 2011 Elusive Rating
|14||Adrian L. Peterson||MIN||208||18||3.13||33||2||48.4|
Bottom 15, 2011 Elusive Rating