NFL fans are the smartest, most well-informed fans of any sport in the world. They have more access to film, statistics, and metrics than ever before. At the tip of our fingers, we can access any play or number to help support our opinions and thoughts on a player or a team. We are finally getting the opportunity to have more nuanced conversations about the game.
However, there are some statistics out there that are frequently cited that don’t really offer us much context. In fact, they actually take away from the argument, rather than add to it. One stat that irks me is yards per carry for running backs. To be frank, I find that statistic to be utterly useless. I won’t go into a full rant about it here, but essentially, the stat doesn’t provide us any context. Yards per carry is consistent from year to year and it often rewards “garbage time” plays such as third-and-long runs that have virtually no chance of being converted into a first down. Also, one or two long runs can skew the data to make average running backs appear better than they actually are.
We’ve been trained to use “counting” stats to determine who we view as the best players in the NFL. Part of the reason we are accustomed to believe this is because of our love for fantasy football. We often assume that the players who score the most fantasy points correlate to the best actual football players. While there are times that fantasy points will correspond directly with the best players in the league, counting stats rarely tell us the full story. Allow me to give an example.
In 2013, Pierre Garcon was the No.1 receiver in Washington, catching 113 passes for 1,346 yards and five touchdowns. Garcon earned a lot of praise for his season and was routinely discussed as one of the best receivers in the NFL.
However, when you dig deep into his season, it wasn’t all that impressive. Garcon played on a terrible Washington team that finished 3-13 and trailed in a lot of games. Garcon led the league in targets with 181, averaging a measly 7.4 yards per target. The counting stats said he had a great season. But his efficiency stats and play success would beg to differ.
In the same vein, if you were to ask someone which running backs are having the best season so far in 2018, they may pull up the season-long stats, look at how many rushing yards a player has and repeat his name. Or if they are really trying to impress you by using “efficiency” numbers, they may even cite a running back who is averaging five yards per carry. Just for the sake of the argument, here are the top rushing leaders so far in 2018:
One might make the case that Matt Breida is having a better year rushing than Alvin Kamara or Kareem Hunt because he has more yards on fewer carries. However, that would be a fallacy at this point in time. Why is this the case? Because Breida hasn’t been as consistent as either of those players, despite what the yards per carry may tell you.
One statistic that helps us with rushing efficiency is a metric called “Play Success.” Of all the numbers and data points out there right now, this is the best way to value the rushing ability of a player/team. How it’s defined is quite simple. Here is the breakdown:
1st down — 40 percent of yards gained that were needed for a first down
2nd down — 50 percent of yards gained that were needed for a first down
3rd and 4th down — First down gained or touchdown scored
If you think of these in an actual football sequence, it makes sense. Gaining four yards on first-and-10 is generally considered a good play. You could talk me into lowering it to 30 or 35 percent on first down, but I digress. After our four-yard run, we are at second-and-6. A run of three yards now gets you to a manageable third-and-3. Finally, anything less than three yards on third down should be defined as an unsuccessful play. Got it?
With all that being said, let’s take a look at which running backs have had the most success through four games this season. In the chart below, only running backs with at least 25 carries were included. To the far right is the overall play success percentage, and to the left of that is the number of successful runs. Feel free to take a look and make your own conclusions:
First and foremost, it's important to remember that this is still a relatively small sample size as we are looking at just four weeks of the NFL season. Bears’ running back Tarik Cohen leads the league in successful run percentage, but he’s had just 27 rushing attempts this season. It’s pretty likely that his efficiency is going to go down. I wouldn’t recommend tweeting that Cohen is a better player than Ezekiel Elliott, but I won’t stop you.
Dive into the numbers some and it’s pretty clear that Todd Gurley has been the best running back in the league. Gurley has already run the ball 79 times this season and has 48 successful runs — by far the most in the league. This chart doesn’t even include his receiving ability, which is obviously a big part of his game. Considering that and his insane rushing efficiency, Gurley has been a star in the first month of the season.
Now, if you wanted to dig into this even further, you could find out which running backs are at their best on each down. Some backs excel in short-yardage situations, and you should then expect their third- and fourth-down success rate to be high. I’ve compiled all of the successful runners on first down this season, as well as their stats. Take a look at how some of the best running backs in the league have fared on first down this season:
There will likely never be an end-all, be-all statistic for running backs. There are just way too many factors to consider (offensive line, passing game threat, defenders in the box, etc) to come up with the perfect metric.
However, we are improving our analysis of the run game, and it is mostly thanks to new statistics, such as successful run rates. At the very least, this metric helps paint a more accurate picture of which running backs have been valuable and which ones have hurt their team. Progress.