When I first devised the Elusive Rating — a unique measure of how runners fare beyond the help of blocking — it was intended to be a scale roughly between 1 and 100, with the least elusive players scoring in the single-digits and the guys almost impossible to tackle scoring up near 100. For a long time this season C.J. Spiller threatened to break the scale entirely. Early in the season Spiller had an ER over 400 when the highest previous single-season mark was in the 80s.
In the end, though, the weight of the full season took its toll and the scale remained intact — just. What we are left with though is a few of the greatest individual performances from running backs since we started tracking the data in 2008.
Missing the Cut
In order to qualify for the ER this season the qualifying number of touches has been set at 100 in order to limit the study to people that have largely been significant ballcarriers for their teams, or at least a big part of the offense. This eliminated a lot of bit-part backs, as well as names like Peyton Hillis and David Wilson who were supposed to be much bigger parts of the offense.
The only player eliminated, however, that would have had any kind of impact on the final standings is Oakland’s Mike Goodson. I have always been a Goodson fan, and with Darren McFadden going down injured this season both he and Marcel Reece got a chance to be a bigger part of that offense. Reece showed he was far more than just a quirky fullback, but Goodson’s ER was off the charts (literally) on his 51 touches. His final ER of 124.5 is an incredible mark, and down to forcing 13 missed tackles from those 51 touches. He averaged 4.89 yards after contact per carry and went just 3.9 touches for each missed tackle he forced. All of those figures either lead the league or are right at the sharp end.
The Adrian Peterson Section
There was no way a season like Peterson’s wasn’t going to be afforded a section of this article all to itself. He didn’t end the season leading the league in ER, and with 388 total touches that was never likely, but how close he came is a testament to how truly ridiculous this year was, and that’s before you take into account that he did this recovering from an ACL+MCL+meniscus tear at the tail end of last year.
Peterson led the NFL in missed tackles forced, with a total of 71, three more than the next back. He averaged 3.92 yards per carry after contact, which also led the league by some considerable distance. That mark wouldn’t be a terrible total rushing average, but Peterson was gaining that after contact. He ended the season with 1,364 yards gained after contact, more than any other running back, and a total average of 6.0 yards per carry. The one area where the ER harms some players is in long breakaway runs where the runner is untouched. Peterson had 40 runs of 15 or more yards, more than double that of the next best runner, and yet his ER is still in the Top 5. This was one of the greatest seasons any runner has ever strung together, and the ER is just one more piece of evidence to back that up.
But let’s get to the good stuff. Here’s a quick reminder of the magic formula, and remember I set the qualifying threshold of touches to 100+.
[(Missed Tackles Rush + Missed Tackles Rec) / (Rushes + Receptions)] * (Yards per Carry after Contact / Att. * 100)
The Top of the Table
As if there was any doubt, C.J. Spiller was the most elusive running back in 2012. In fact, Spiller is the most elusive running back to have been given any significant number of carries in the past five seasons. Peterson led the league in forced missed tackles with 71, but Spiller notched 66 on 138 fewer touches. The rate at which he forced misses was ridiculous for somebody given as many carries as he was given. Yet Chan Gailey couldn’t find a way to give him more touches and Buffalo at times seemed to be actively scheming ways to keep the ball out of his hands.
This is the same logic we saw applied in Kansas City for years with Jamaal Charles. The thinking seems to be that smaller, electrifying backs may not be able to handle a full workload, so we won’t even try to up their carries, instead handing the ball off to a futile but steady running back. To be fair to Buffalo, Fred Jackson is far, far better than Thomas Jones ever was, but Spiller’s season was so transcendent that you had to find a way to increase his workload and discover for yourself where the tipping point is in terms of diminishing returns. Not doing so simply left us all wondering what could have been. Spiller matched Peterson’s 6.0 yard per carry average, but did so forcing missed tackles at a spectacular rate, almost breaking the ER scale in the process. Failing to maximize his use probably cost Chan Gailey his job.
The one player in the mix that will surprise most, and the only player to displace the duo of Spiller and Peterson from the top of any of the significant categories, is Pittsburgh’s Isaac Redman. PFF has always been a fan of Redman dating back to naming him one of our Secret Superstars in May last year, but this season he really distanced himself from the stable of backs used in the Steel city. Redman ended the year with just 128 touches, and while the Steelers’ coaches seemed to favor Johnathan Dwyer, it was Redman that was doing more damage on his own with the ball in his hands. Dwyer touched the ball 174 times and forced 21 missed tackles on those touches, but Redman forced 38 from almost 50 fewer touches. In fact, Redman’s rate of making people miss was the best mark in the entire league. He forced a miss every 3.4 touches, which betters the mark of even C.J. Spiller at the head of the pack, and is far better than the figure of a miss every 8.3 touches that Dwyer could claim.
Baltimore’s Bernard Pierce is another notable appearance inside the top five, with an ER score that tops that of Peterson in his limited number of touches.
1 C.J. Spiller BUF 207 43 3.58 66 94.6
2 Isaac Redman PIT 110 18 3.02 38 89.6
3 Bernard Pierce BLT 108 7 3.53 25 76.7
4 Adrian L. Peterson MIN 348 40 3.93 71 72
5 Jacquizz Rodgers ATL 94 53 2.72 33 61.1
6 Bryce Brown PHI 116 13 3.33 23 59.3
7 Doug Martin TB 319 49 3.15 68 58.2
8 Marcel Reece OAK 59 52 3.39 19 58
9 Joique Bell DET 82 52 2.99 26 58
10 Pierre Thomas NO 105 39 2.78 30 57.9
11 Marshawn Lynch SEA 315 23 2.77 63 51.7
12 LaRod Stephens-Howling ARZ 110 17 2.34 28 51.5
13 Alfred Morris WAS 335 11 2.99 59 51
14 Fred Jackson BUF 115 34 2.4 31 49.9
15 LeSean McCoy PHI 200 54 2.52 46 45.6
The Ugly End
Of course every running back can’t be Adrian Peterson, and the league is still stocked with players that rely on their blocking to generate the majority of their yardage. The good news this season is that there is nobody that posted an ER in the single-digits. Thomas Jones is also no longer in the league — those two statements may or may not be related.
The bottom five players feature three runners who seem exactly where they should be, in the shape of Shonn Greene, Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Mikel Leshoure. None of those three have impressed much as a runner and are rarely a threat to make people miss. The trio combined for 59 total missed tackles forced, which is the same number as Trent Richardson managed all by himself, and they did so despite averaging 281 touches.
The other two members of that bottom five are surprising, however. Nobody has a poorer ER than New England’s Danny Woodhead who ties Greene’s 11.7 ER to prop up the foot of the table. Despite being a shifty runner Woodhead forced just eight total misses from his 116 touches and averaged a paltry 1.7 yards after contact, the lowest mark in the league. The only thing mitigating this ranking is that these numbers won’t count plays where Woodhead tied his man in knots such that he never had a realistic shot at making the tackle in the first place. This has happened on more than one occasion, especially in the passing game where he is an extremely tough cover for defenses.
Green Bay’s Alex Green is the final member of the bottom five with just a dozen missed tackles forced from his 153 touches. It is no coincidence that the Packers looked a far more formidable outfit with DeJuan Harris running the ball.
43 Chris D. Johnson TEN 276 36 2.03 29 18.9
44 Jackie Battle SD 95 15 2.19 9 17.9
45 Arian Foster HST 351 40 2.18 32 17.9
46 Darren McFadden OAK 216 42 1.94 23 17.3
47 Jamaal Charles KC 285 35 2.22 24 16.7
48 Alex Green GB 134 19 2.11 12 16.6
49 Mikel Leshoure DET 215 34 2 20 16.1
50 BenJarvus Green-Ellis CIN 278 22 2.07 23 15.9
51 Shonn Greene NYJ 276 19 2.15 16 11.7
52 Danny Woodhead NE 76 40 1.7 8 11.7
Of course being elusive isn’t limited to just running backs in today’s NFL, and given the propensity for teams to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers as much as possible, I’m going to look at the ER of a few special cases to see how they stack up.
Robert Griffin III’s ER is hurt by the option offense that the Redskins ran. When they ran it well, RGIII wasn’t touched until he slid to give himself up. His ER came out at 16.3, which still makes him a more elusive runner than Mikel Leshoure!
Cam Newton is a different prospect, weighing a significant amount more than his Redskins counterpart and not afraid to attack defenders once he’s moving. Newton’s ER came out at 36.4, by far the best mark among quarterbacks that I looked at. His 17 forced missed tackles is also the best of the group. Lastly Russell Wilson, a quarterback not necessarily chosen because of his prowess in a run-option offense but who found himself using his legs plenty this year as the Seahawks played to his skills. Wilson’s ER including the playoffs ended up at 21.8.
The final player I looked at was another having an outstanding season before injuries shut it down — Percy Harvin. The Vikings fed him the ball any way they could, and with good reason. His ER ended up at a massive 64.3, which would be good enough to take fifth spot in the overall rankings, just behind his teammate Peterson.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam