Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The End Of A Wave?

With the Eagles releasing Brian Westbrook today we are seeing the final throes of what has been an amazing decade for running backs. Whether through luck, modern medicine, more creative offenses or (more likely) a combination, the first decade of the millennium has seen a surprisingly powerful core of runners who proved to be both productive and durable, the latter a particularly rare quality in NFL running backs.

13 running backs who joined the league from 1998 - 2004 have rushed for at least 6000 yards. Willis McGahee and Westbrook are all but certain to join that group this year. Four of those running backs (Freddie Taylor, Edgerrin James, Jamal Lewis and LaDanian Tomlinson) have rushed for over 10,000 with Clinton Portis (9696) and Thomas Jones (9217) likely to join them eventually, if not this year.

None of these guys will challenge the all-time rushing leaders but Tomlinson will finish in the top 10 with James, Taylor, Lewis and Portis likely finishing in the top 20. The wild card is Steven Jackson who has 6700 yards at age 26. Tomlinson is 26 rush TD behind Emmitt and has a narrow shot of finishing as the all-time record holder. Other than Alexander at 7th, the others again are further down the list.

To be honest, when I started this I thought I might have noticed something, but on reflection, maybe not. 1997 was a huge rookie year for running backs with 3 10,000 yarders (Dunn, Barber, Dillon) along with two more 6,000 yarders; Holmes and Antowain Smith. 1996 saw 10k Eddie George and 8k Stephen Davis. 1995 14k (!) Curtis Martin and 7k Terrell Davis. More recently the league has added Gore (5561) in '05, Jones-Drew (3924) in '06, Peterson (4484) in '07, and a number of promising backs (Johnson, Rice, Stewart, Mendenhall, Charles, others) in '08.

I guess it is more of a continuum than a blip.


  1. The blip to me looks like it's more at the QB position. I wrote in email to a friend of mine, as we discussed whether Peyton was the best QB ever (email was prior to the Superbowl)...

    Basically look over QB rating - simplistic but at least provides direction - these last few seasons vs. any other time. This season in particular. Five QBs with over 100, a dozen over 90, and almost half over 86. Manning's in his 12th season. Look back at Johnny U's 12th season. He was 4th in the league in passer rating, just over 83. That year, no one had a higher than 87.3 rating, and only five were at 80 or higher. Even in '94, Marino's 12th year, one was over 100, one more at 90.7, and only 4 total had a higher than 85 rating.

    QB play is starting to skew heavily toward higher numbers. I don't know if it's rule changes, or simply better players coming into the league. Probably a combination, but whatever it is, it seems like we're in unprecidented times for great quarterback play.

  2. 1978 rule changes have everything to do with this. Defenders were limited to 5 yard contact and pass protectors were allowed to extend their arms for the first time. You simply cannot compare offensive statistics before and after these seminal changes. The best way to see this is through year-by-year passing attempt leaders. Other than 1982 and 1987 (strike years) there was not a single single-season leader prior to 1978 who would have led the league in attempts after 1978.

    Okay, so 1978 was the first 16 game season. So adjusting for that, the lowest league leader post '78 was Elway in '93 at 34.4 att/game. Prior to '78 the only quarterbacks who led the league with higher rates were Jurgenson and Namath in '67, Blanda in '64. Jurgenson had the highest pre-'78 rate at 36.3. Other than those guys only Namath in '66 and Frank Tripucka in '60 came close to Elway's low water mark.

    FWIW the all-time leader in single season attempts was Drew Bledsoe with 691 as a 2nd year player in '94 (43.2/game). Sonny Jurgenson's 1967 total is 183rd all time.

  3. Also in 1980 the head slap was outlawed.

  4. Yeah, that explains discrepancies between now and the 60s/70s, but what about today vs. the 90s? There have been some rule tweaks, but so much that it'd cause the differences we've seen over the last five years vs. the five at the end of the 90s?

    Between '05 and '09, 45 QBs finished with > 90 rating.

    Between '95 and '99, 26 QBs finished with > 90 rating.

    That's a pretty big change in just a decade. Not certain it's statistically significant given sample size, but it's a 73% increase with a 160 data sample. Well, expansion in '99, but that's only less than two teams per year, nowhere near enough to account for the difference.




    Prolly worth further exploration in a future post.

  5. And Shaun Alexander a couple years ago. 9400 yards.

    Interesting how many of them had major knee surgeries. I think modern medicine might be playing a pretty big role here. Willis McGahee & Jamal Lewis in college, and Formerly Fragile Freddie Taylor. Knee injuries used to end careers. Now we talk confidently about how it takes a player 2 years to come "all the way back".

    (Jerry Rice had a late-career knee injury too.)

    It's shocking how under-the-radar Thomas Jones is. He's been a very fine football player for years; but I never would have guessed he was over 9000 yards.

    There's something odd about his career. He's been productive everywhere he's been, but at every stop it seemed like the team wanted someone else to the the #1 back.

  6. 3.5 yd average and 9 rushing TDs in *three* years after being drafted #7 overall is not productive from where I sit!


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