Why Jamaal Charles Missed the List
The PFF Top 101 list is one of the things we do that I enjoy the most. The comments section alone of the final list makes for some pretty funny reading. In among the hysteria and lunacy always lies the odd valid criticism and the few points that deserve some explanation.
This year the thing that caused the biggest stir was the omission of Jamaal Charles from the list. The league’s fourth-ranked rusher with 1,509 rushing yards was somehow leapfrogged by multiple runners and slipped out of the list entirely. What gives?
The PFF Top 101 isn’t a list of the best players in the league. It isn’t the most talented, the first 101 guys you would want on your roster in 2013 and beyond, it is a list of the 101 best seasons of 2012, regardless of position. Charles would likely be high in a list of the best 101 players in football, and I think if we can all accept Adrian Peterson is the best runner in the NFL, Charles is one of a few players with a legitimate claim to being that No. 2 guy, but that isn’t what this list was all about.
The first point I think we need to make is that PFF loves Jamaal Charles. Seriously.
He may not have made the Top 101 this year, but in 2010 he was our top-graded RB by a good distance. While the rest of the football world was going nuts about Arian Foster’s league-leading 1,616 yards, we were telling people that Charles had a much, much better season and had he only been handed a higher workload, the sky would have been the limit.
It was a similar story in 2009 when he was our third-ranked runner and by far the best looking purely at running the ball.
So, is it more likely that our methodology became redundant and obsolete overnight because Charles misses out in 2012, or is it possible that despite racking up impressive yardage there are other factors that push him just off the list?
Much as people like to malign the KC line for some reason, in 2012 it actually run blocked consistently well — Eric Winston, in particular, excelled in that area. In fact, only Jeff Allen had any serious negative run-blocking grade with six other linemen grading positively for their work in the run game. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like this was the best unit in football or anything, and they surrendered a boat-load of pressure at times, but run blocking was their strength. Charles was getting a healthy amount of yardage before he needed to do anything at all.
He led all runners last season in uncontested yards, gaining more than half a yard per carry more than anybody else before contact. That number is obviously skewed by some big runs with no contact at all, but even with his longest runs removed he remains at the head of the pack. The point I’m making is that Charles had a lot of help from his run blocking last year, more than many like to give them credit for.
Charles topped 1,500 rushing yards last season, but did you know that 42% of them came on just 19 carries? The only player to have a higher Breakaway Percentage was Adrian Peterson who amassed a frankly ludicrous 40 runs of 15 yards or more and gained 1,184 yards from that set of attempts. I’m not trying to suggest that being a home-run threat is a bad thing by any means, but I am suggesting that outside of those runs, Charles was doing less than some other runners who did actually make the list.
If we put those runs to the side for a moment, Charles averaged 3.3 yards per carry on everything else. That’s not a terrible number, but Marshawn Lynch was able to average 3.6 yards per carry when his breakaway runs are taken away, so was Alfred Morris, and Frank Gore 3.7 yards per attempt.
If we look at the Elusive Rating we see another area where Charles doesn’t quite stack up. This rating was an attempt to look at what a runner does with the ball in his hands isolated from the blocking he receives. It looks at yards after contact and how many tackles the runner forced defenders to miss. Charles forced 24 missed tackles last season in total. C.J. Spiller can match that figure with his best three games and forced a massive 66 in total, on fewer touches than Charles.
Now Spiller is an outlier and almost broke the scale of the ER, which is how he got as high up the list as he did for a player given comparatively few touches, but again if we look at other runners we see Charles way down. There isn’t a runner on the list that forced fewer missed tackles than Charles did or had a lower Elusive Rating. While Charles was down in 21st place in the ER (given a starter’s load filter in snaps), the Top 5 players in Elusive Rating all made the list. The other players to make it were ranked 10th and 16th.
As the man who came up with the Elusive Rating I’ll be the first to tell you it isn’t perfect, and Jamaal Charles is the kind of player that will be screwed by it on occasion. He won’t get any credit for plays in which he simply outruns defenders to space and never lets them get in a position to even miss a tackle, assuming he isn’t touched before that footrace. In the past, however, he has scored significantly better in the rating, and there are other factors we can look at.
While the Elusive Rating won’t give Charles any credit for blazing speed that simply outruns defenders to space and is the reason for many of his long runs, our play-by-play grading will. We are the only people out there watching every player on every play and grading exactly what they do with their carries. Numbers can lie at times, but paired with the tape they’re rarely far wrong.
If you almost ignore the yardage and look simply at what Charles did with the ball in his hands relative to other runners, he lags behind again. Did he have to make a good cut, a good burst, break a tackle, spin out of the grasp of a defender, use good vision to find the hole, outrun somebody to space, or was he simply benefiting from the blocking that was there on any given play? When that line of questioning is applied to every touch Charles and every other runner had, his grade doesn’t compare. He certainly didn’t grade poorly, and was our 10th-graded runner on the season looking only at carries. When you include work in the pass game and as a blocker he slips to 14th, and when you add in the postseason (as we did for the Top 101) he drops another place to 15th.
The lowest-ranked player to make the list ahead of him was graded ninth (Rice).
It’s easy to read all of this and come to the conclusion that PFF hates Jamaal Charles, but the truth is far from it. He had a fine season, and when you take into account his recovery from a torn ACL the year before, it’s a remarkable comeback story, one that would likely have gotten a lot more ink but for Adrian Peterson defying medical science and physics to come within a hair of the all-time single-season rushing record in the course of his comeback.
Charles was one of the only bright spots for a Chiefs team that spent the year reeling from one quarterback nightmare to another and, were we picking from a list of runners to start a franchise with, he would be right up at the sharp end, but on a list of the best 101 seasons from 2012, he just missed the cut, as did dozens of fine and deserving performances.
We’re talking about a league in which thousands of players suit up over the course of 21 weeks and we could bring you just 101 names. Sometimes players just don’t quite make it, and Jamaal Charles was one of those names.
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