I left this one trapped in the proverbial closet for way to long. I had hoped to get all three parts out before the draft, but I ended up drowning in game tape for Prospect Playbook pieces over at MTD, and the Playbook Projector pieces on Robert Quinn and on the 2-TE set here at TST. So even though it's well beyond a deadline which didn't exist, it's still worth revisiting.
In part 1 (and 1b), I tried to demonstrate the lessening value of the RB position by analyzing the running tendencies of playoff and non-playoff teams from 2001-2010. In part 3, we'll look at highly drafted running backs in the past decade to see how they've fared and how their respective teams have performed. Today though, in my continuing effort to suggest the running back position doesn't have nearly the level of overall team impact that it did in years past (and that stronger teams recognize that as being the case and draft appropriately), we look at the top running backs to see how their performance correlates with team performance. Actually, I put together data on RBs, QBs and WRs to see if any one position had a more direct correlation with team success (as in making the playoffs).
Graphs and haterade after the jump.
So first, I put together data on the top 5 RBs each year from 2006-2010 according to three categories: total yards for a season, yards per game and yards per rush. I wanted to look at all three for a couple specific reasons.
For total yards, you could argue it's largely dependent on staying healthy; that's exactly the reason I wanted to investigate this category. If a team's starting running back is healthy enough to play all 16 games, they should have their best rushing attack possible. Furthermore, if he not only plays all 16 games but runs for more yards than the large majority of other NFL running backs, that should have an impact on the team's postseason chances (although you know I don't believe that, but I have to start there).
The NFL sends 12 teams to the postseason every year, represented as such:
In other words, 62.5% of all NFL teams fail to make the postseason. Four teams' seasons end in the wild card and divisional rounds, respectively, equaling 12.5%. And the roads for two teams end in the conference championships and Super Bowl each.
I was looking to see if the leaders in specific categories were on more playoff teams or non-playoff teams, with the obvious takeaway being that if the leaders are on a larger share of playoff teams, that aspect tends to either occur on or be the cause of successful teams. Here's how the data on the top five rushing leaders from the 2006-2010 seasons broke down:
A couple suggestions. First, and I referenced this in part 1, good teams, playoff teams obviously win games. For several playoff teams, that means late game leads which equal running the ball to kill clock. Of course, as Rams fans know, you still have to get first downs to negate a comeback by your opponent, but good teams tend to do that. Surprisingly (for me at least), more than half of the top rushers were on playoff teams; just a dozen of the 25 seasons (including Steven Jackson's 2006 and 2009 campaigns) were for teams that didn't make the playoffs.
More surprisingly, none of the last five Super Bowls included a top 5 rushing leader. That's what led me to start thinking about other positions, chiefly QB, and whether or not passing yardage leaders were more frequently on playoff and Super Bowl teams. But we'll get to QBs in a minute. Next, I wanted to look at what I think is the most important traditional rushing statistic, yards per attempt. Here's the chart for the top 5 running backs in terms of yards per rush from '06-'10:
The main reason I'm a fan of yards/attempt is that it's less about the running back and more about the offensive line's run blocking ability and system influences. In fact in two years, there were two top 5 running backs in yards per rush from the same team: Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor from the Vikings in '07 (2nd and 4th, respectively), and Derrick Ward and Brandon Jacobs from the Giants in '08 (1st and 3rd, respectively).
Still, though, 11 teams from the last five years had a running back who was top 5 in yards per carry and didn't make the playoffs. So what about yards per game? Would having a consistent performer who, when healthy, was one of the most explosive backfield threats in the league lead a team to the playoffs more often than the norm?
Not really. Like the season yardage leaders, the slim majority of yards per game leaders played on non-playoff teams. And just one played on a Super Bowl team; Brandon Jacobs posted the third best yard per game rate in the league during the Giants' championship season.
So while I could suggest this showed running backs didn't have a tremendous impact on a team's fortunes, I had nothing to compare it to. I thought about going back 40 years ago and comparing the data to an era where the position was absolutely vital, but I wasn't sure that was the best way to show how little of an impact the better running backs have on their teams. Instead, I went after passing data. And yes, as I'm sure you would assume, quarterbacks have a much larger impact on their teams.
Take the yards per game and completion percentage leaders from the last five years:
One of the things I'd love to know is what people notice first: a similar non-playoff tendency or the Super Bowl tendency. On one hand, teams with a top 5 quarterback in terms of yards per game or completion percentage were on non-playoff teams as often as the running backs in the three categories for the most part. The main difference was that in the 75 seasons in the running back data, there were just two Super Bowl teams represented: the 2007 Giants and the 2009 Saints. On the other hand, there were five Super Bowl seasons for each data group for the QBs.
There is one set, though, that drastically outperforms all five of the above groups: top 5 yards per pass attempt:
Just six of the 25 entries didn't make the playoffs, including Drew Brees in 2008 and Ben Roethlisberger in 2009, both Super Bowl champions. I'm not suggesting it's the theory of everything, but it's pretty telling that more than three quarters of all pass yards per attempt leaders made the playoffs.
On a whim, I put together the WR data as well. It's much more interesting than I would have guessed:
The yards per reception pie was shocking. Joe Horn, Justin Gage, Anthony Armstrong and Andre Davis - somehow, that's not a group that screams "game changers" to me. I can't argue with the data though.
That's where I'd like to get some feedback from y'all. Last time, at the end of the comments for part 1, Willgfass suggested I throw in the non-playoff data to compare to playoff teams, so I did just that for part 1b. I've got a couple ideas for the addendum to this, but what do you guys think could be the key? Do I need to open up the sample size to go back to the beginning of the decade? I'm not a fan of that, because after the hand check changes to cornerbacks after 5 yards, the game changed, slightly though significantly. I think it took players, coaches and even the refs a couple years to settle in on that rule change.
What about wins? Is there a correlation to be had just for the regular season? Seattle made the playoffs this year with just seven wins (an outlier if there ever was one), and few observers would say they were a "good" team last year. Would putting field performance up against baseline win-loss records tell us more?
Fill in the cracks, and help me figure out where to go with this.