With all 32 back in camp, much attention will be paid to the rookie class of 2012 and their ability to contribute this year. One position where rookies can immediately step in and make an impact is the RB spot. While rookies tend to get worked in slowly at many positions – QB, WR, LB to name a few – rookie RB’s are often thrust into starting spots or given big part-time roles. Here are the top 25 all time heaviest workloads by percentage of their team’s rushing offense for rookie RB’s:
Since 1970, 54 RB’s have had 50% or more of their team’s rushing attempts, though only 4 (Edgerrin James, LaDanian Tomlinson, Curtis Martin and Eric Dickerson) had more than 75%.
Perhaps a sign of the weakness of the 2011 crop of rookies, or the league-wide shift to RB rotations, only 9 2011 rookies had more than 10% of their team’s total rushing attmepts:
Chances are, 2012 rookie Trent Richardson will easily surpass 2011 rookie leader DeMarco Murray’s 40.2% of Dallas’ rushes. The other early picks, Doug Martin, David Wilson, Isaiah Pead and LaMichael James all figure to be in rotational or situational roles and none are good bets to top the 50% mark barring injury to their team’s other RB’s.
There is little doubt that recently retired RB LaDainian Tomlinson will be a Hall of Famer – probably on the first ballot. Here’s a quick look at the numbers Tomlinson piled up in his outstanding 11 year career:
|All Time RB Rank|
Overall, a very impressive and Canton worthy resume. His 30 career fumbles is 10th best for RB’s with 1000+ carries and his 1% fumble rate is the 2nd best all time for a RB (Curtis Martin is #1) with 1500+ touches. His single-season TD record (31), set in 2006, is impressive. Though the record was set 4 times in the 7 season from 2000 and 2006 (Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Shaun Alexander and Tomlinson), it seems unlikely that it will be topped for awhile. The league has moved so far away from “feature” backs that it is tough to imagine a RB getting enough touches to get 32+ TD’s in a single season. Of the backs in the league, dual threats like Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew or Matt Forte could make a run at the record, maybe Adrian Peterson if he recovers from knee surgery. But otherwise, it seems that Tomlinson will hold the record for the foreseeable future.
Similarly, Tomlinson’s place as 5th overall in NFL history in career rushing yards might not be challenged for awhile. Tomlinson ended his career with 13,684 rushing yards. The leading active rusher is the currently unemployed Thomas Jones with 10,591 yards (22nd all time). At 33 years old and nothing more than a part timer, if he even suits up in 2012, Jones won’t top Tomlinson. Behind Jones is Steven Jackson at 9,093 yards. At 28 years old, it’s possible for Jackson to end up in the top 5 all-time. To do that, Jackson would have to do something most late 20’s and early 30’s RB’s don’t – stay healthy and highly productive.
Tomlinson’s place in history is secure. There are few arguments to be made that he isn’t one of the top 10 RB’s in the Super Bowl era. However, how highly should we regard Tomlinson’s career? While he’s the best RB to come out of the 2000’s, it was an era with few feature backs and fewer guys who were capable of dominance. Compared to the other elite backs in the Super Bowl era, Tomlinson stacks up well – but his stats don’t exhibit the consistent dominance you’d expect from a guy whom some consider the greatest of all time
One way to measure a RB’s success is by using YPC+ – a measure of his yards per carry relative to the league average. After all, a 1200 yard season isn’t impressive if that RB averages 3.2 yards per carry in an era where the league average is 4.4 YPC. It’s easy for people to get a bit blinded by gaudy yardage stats without taking into account yards per carry. For example, Cedric Benson ran for 1,111 yards in 2010 – good for 13th best in the league. But his meager 3.5 YPC was 42nd out of 46 RB’s who had 100+ carries. Benson ended up with a YPC+ of just 83, or 17% worse than league average. From that point of view, his “good year” looks pretty bad.
Here are the Top 10 rushing yardage leaders since 1970 YPC+:
As you can see, Tomlinson’s 102 YPC+ is good for 7th best of this group. However, his longest streak of consecutive 100+ YPC seasons was 3 and he only had 2 115+ seasons. He also had the 2nd fewest 100+ YPC seasons (less than half of his seasons in the league). Now, his receiving ability and use out of the backfield gives him a dual-threat aspect that some other top RB’s didn’t have.
Here is that same group of RB’s by their career receiving averages:
Tomlinson leads the way with an average of 57 catches per year, though his 7.8 YPC is behind Payton, Allen and Sanders.
Lastly, here are the RB’s career offensive averages, rushes and receptions combined:
Only 3 RB’s since 1970 have produced more yards per touch than Tomlinson. As a pure rusher, I wouldn’t put Tomlinson in the top 5 of the modern era. However, as an overall RB, he is definitely one of the most productive and most talented that the league has ever seen.
While the image of Wes Welker dropping what most likely would have been a Super Bowl clinching catch just 3 and half months ago is probably still seared into the minds of Patriots (and Giants) fans, there are plenty of reasons to think that Welker will be in a position this year to atone for his drop (on an admittedly tough, but catchable, pass). After all, the Patriots have only gotten stronger on offense and their secondary has nowhere to go but up. Chances are good that Welker and the Patriots will be once again playing big games in January and, perhaps, February of 2013. However, what happens to the diminutive WR after that is a mystery.
Currently, Welker is franchise tagged and (unlike teammate Logan Mankins) decided that signing his franchise tender and getting into camp on time was a good way to ensure a good season and a potentially lucrative extension. Welker has reportedly turned down a 2 year, $18M contract which was rumored to have been fully guaranteed. Presumably, he is looking for a longer deal. The question is: is Wes Welker really worth re-signing for more than 2 years? If Tom Brady had his way, Welker would probably ride off into the sunset with Brady and Belichick in 3-4 years after winning another Lombardi trophy. While some Pats fans might not want to admit it for fear of sullying their image of Belichick the cold-hearted mastermind, Brady’s desires probably do have a little clout in the minds of Belichick and player personnel man Nick Caserio. After all, Tom Brady is not a QB who finds (or can create) chemistry with the average receiver – despite making plenty of average receivers look pretty good. Part of the Pats’ struggles to develop a young WR have come from Brady not trusting anyone other than Welker, Branch and his young TE’s. Keeping Brady happy is certainly a selling point for Welker and there is no denying that, with the exception of that one (very memorable and significant) pass in February, no one works as well with Brady as Welker does. In fact, were it not for the Brady/Welker chemistry, it is likely – or even probable – that this would be Welker’s swan song in Foxboro. As it is, he’s likely to end up with a contract extension in New England at some point between now and September of 2013.
The problem the Patriots have, and it’s a certainty that their front office knows it, is that Welker is small, takes a lot of vicious hits over the course of the year and is at the point of his career where small WR’s break down rapidly. Take a look at the yearly reception totals of the top 15 non-Welker WR’s 5’10 or shorter since 1990:
How many of those guys were worth big money after the age of 32 (which Welker will reach in 2013)? Mason, certainly. Steve Smith likely. The rest? Not so much. While Mason lasted forever and Smith looks to still be highly productive consider this:
Touches (receptions, rushes, punt returns, kick returns) through age 30:
Derrick Mason – 737
Steve Smith – 891
Wes Welker – 1063
Welker has 326 more touches than Mason did by the time each receiver got through their age 30 season. Even the 172 touch differential between Welker and Smith is nearly 2 full seasons worth.
None of this is to say that Welker cannot be productive beyond the next two years. However, most Patriots fans can attest to the fact that he gets knocked around pretty badly through the course of the season. As did Wayne Chrebet, whose style was more similar to Welker’s than Mason or Smith (the latter two being more frequently used on the perimeter than Welker). He disappeared into oblivion quickly due to injuries and concussion problems. Like running backs, small WR’s tend to age very poorly and the Patriots’ (well deserved) reputation for preferring to get rid of guys a year too early rather than a year too late seems to indicate that they will hesitate to keep Tom Brady’s security blanket in town for too many years.
With Matt Flynn signing in Seattle, Robert Griffin III headed to Washington and Peyton Manning seemingly not interested, the Dolphins for the 13th season in a row are left wondering who their next franchise QB will be. In the 12 seasons since Marino retired, the Dolphins have struggled to find a merely average QB, let alone a true cornerstone player. They’ve trotted out a seemingly endless string of veteran retreads (Chad Pennington, Gus Frerotte), has-beens (Daunte Culpepper, Trent Green) and never were’s (Joey Harrington, Cleo Lemon, Sage Rosenfels, Brian Griese). A whopping 16 different QB’s have started for Miami since their Hall of Famer departed after the 1999 season. Take a look at the numbers:
Looking at it another way, take a look at the Dolphins team QB Rating in the last 12 seasons, compared to league average:
Only Chad Pennington in 2008 was significantly above average. Matt Moore, to his credit, did a pretty decent job last year – posting a QB Rating of 84.9, a little better than the 82.5 league average. To that end, Moore was statistically better than Michael Vick, Cam Newton Joe Flacco, Matt Hasselbeck, Mark Sanchez and Jay Cutler. The issue for the Dolphins is that Moore at his best doesn’t seem like the type of guy who can take a team deep in the playoffs without a great defense behind him. Of course it’s possible that he is a late bloomer and could continue to improve, but if you’re Miami, do you really want to put your future in the hands of Matt Moore? Probably not.
That said, Moore’s success in 2011 is a good reason to avoid Matt Flynn who is no sure bet to be any better than Moore and is only 10 months younger. That Flynn’s former offensive coordinator and current Dolphins coach Joe Philbin wasn’t willing to make a big play for Flynn (and it seems that Miami’s interest in him was tepid) says a lot about the Dolphins valuation of Moore vs. Flynn. While Flynn might end up the better player, it’s tough to blame Miami for not seeing him as a guy worth $19-24M.
Where the Dolphins do deserve some criticism though is not addressing the QB spot in the draft. They’ve wasted 2nd round picks on Pat White (2009), Chad Henne (2008) and John Beck (2007) and took a late round flier on Josh Heupel (6th round, 2001) but have otherwise ignored the position since Marino left.
Looking ahead, the Dolphins will have to decide whether or not they want to invest a high draft pick in a rookie QB. Ryan Tannehill is raw but has high upside and the Dolphins could easily sit him behind the reasonably competent Moore for a year. However, will Tannehill still be around when the Dolphins are on the clock? It seems likely, but there are still more teams in need of a QB than quality veterans available so it wouldn’t be a shock if someone jumps Miami to take Tannehill or perhaps the Browns pull the trigger at #4. The other option would be Brandon Weeden, but at soon-to-be 29 years old, is he really worth a high investment for a team with a mediocre 28 year old QB at the helm? Certainly not in the 1st round but will Weeden last until Miami’s 2nd round pick? What about 2nd tier guys like Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles or Brock Osweiler? Again, it’s tough to project any of those guys as a long term answer or even a better solution than Moore.
Unfortunately for the Dolphins, unless Moore totally bombs they will not be in position for Matt Barkley next year so they might have to get aggressive with how they address the position. Either they will have to secure Tannehill (trading up if necessary) or they will have to be prepared to go hard for Barkley (or another franchise QB type) next year. Of course, if the Dolphins go with Moore + Cousins (or another 2nd/3rd tier QB) they will just be reliving the pattern of the last few years which has gotten them nowhere. At some point they have to make a splash at the position because they won’t hoist the Lombardi trophy without an upgrade from the Matt Moore’s of the world
Since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, there have been 41 Super Bowl champions. Of those, 40 allowed fewer points per drive than league average. The one exception: the 2006 Indianapolis Colts. They were bad nearly across the board, with only 2 exceptions: turnover % and QB Rating against. Make no mistake about it, despite toughening up a lot in the playoffs, the 2006 Colts defense was abysmal. Take a quick look at some stats:
The Colts allowed an astonishing 2.25 Adjusted Points Per Drive ([points per drive allowed]-[defensive points scored per drive]). That was 2nd worst in the league in 2006. To put that in perspective, from 2000-2010 there were 350 team years and only 45 allowed more than 2.2 APPD. Those teams accounted for 246 wins and 474 losses, a winning percentage of .342. Only 4 such teams posted winning records: 2000 St Louis Rams (10-6), 2000 Minnesota Vikings (11-5), 2008 Arizona Cardinals (9-7) and the 2006 Colts (12-4). The Rams lost in the first playoff game, the Vikings got blown out by the Giants in the NFC Championship and the Cardinals lost the Super Bowl. The Cardinals’ defense played pretty well in the playoffs, but the other two teams got exposed badly.
The 2006 Colts allowed 36.9 Yards Per Drive, giving them a YPD+ of 79. In other words, they yielded roughly 21% more yards per drive than the 2006 league average of 30.5. Between 2000-2010, only 11 teams fared worse relative to league average. Those teams had an aggregate record of 70-106, with only 2 winning teams in the bunch – the 2004 Indianapolis Colts (YPD of 77) and the aforementioned 2000 Minnesota Vikings (73)
The 2006 Colts run defense? Staggeringly bad – they gave up 173 yards per game on the ground and an eye-popping 5.3 yards per attempt. The only other team to give up more than 170 rushing yards per game since 2000 was the 2008 Detroit Lions (172 YPG) – who went 0-16. 7 times that year the Colts gave up more than 180 yards on the ground, including 3 games over 200 and 375 yards to the Jaguars. Their incompetence against the run made them one of only 4 teams to face a higher percentage of run plays than league average. Teams ran on the Colts 54.2% of the time, compared to a league average of 45.2%.
Against the pass, the Colts actually fared better. They held opposing QB’s to a Rating of 80.4 compared to league average 78.5. However they were easily the worst pass defense in terms of completion % allowed, allowing QB’s to complete 64.1% of their passes. Only the 1993 Cowboys were over 60% (60.2% to be exact).
Another place the 2006 Colts failed was in stopping touchdowns. They allowed a TD 26% more frequently than the average team – letting their opponent into the endzone on an even 25% of all drives. Only two other Super Bowl winners were below average for their year: the 1998 Broncos (4% worse than average) and the 1976 Raiders (6% worse).
Lastly, the 2006 Colts forced their opponents to punt on only 32.6% of their drives. Only the 1971 Cowboys won the Super Bowl below 40%, checking in at 39.6%. The average for a Super Bowl winner is 48.8%. That the Colts managed to win 12 games while having a sieve for a defense is a testament to Peyton Manning and the rest of their offense.
All in all, it’s a grim picture. The Colts regular season defense in 2006 was the type of unit more often associated with a 4-12 team than a 12-4 team. Somehow though, they managed to pull themselves together and win the most important 4 games of their season. And while it would be easy to credit Peyton Manning, the defense deserves a lot of recognition:
The key here is obviously that the Colts figured out how to stop the run. The Chiefs came into the playoffs averaging about 134 yards per game and the Colts shut down Larry Johnson and company. Kansas City managed to put up only 44 yards on 17 carries. Indianapolis’ performance against the Ravens wasn’t as impressive as the numbers might lead you to believe. Baltimore was 2nd worst in the league with a meager 3.4 yards per carry in the regular season. The Colts allowed Baltimore to run for better than 4 YPC (83 yards on 20 rushes) but combined with 4 takeaways, it was good enough to win. While the Colts were probably lucky to escape the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, the run defense held their ground: giving up a 35 yard run to Corey Dillon but holding the Pats to a meager 2.5 yards per carry on their 23 other runs. The Colts defense managed to stuff Laurence Maroney and Dillon on a number of key third downs, preventing the Pats from running out the clock with what was once an 18 point lead. The Super Bowl saw the Colts run D revert to form a bit, giving up 111 yards on only 19 carries (5.8 YPC) but the 5 takeaways and a relentless running attack of their own (Indy managed 191 yards on 42 carries) earned them the Lombardi trophy.
What the Colts defense did in the 2006 playoffs is truly remarkable. They didn’t end the season on a particularly good note going 2-3 in December while allowing 363 yards per game in that stretch. The big difference between December and the playoffs? In those 5 regular season games, the Colts managed only a combined 5 takeaways. Once the playoffs started, it was a different story with Indianapolis getting 13 takeaways in 4 games. Furthermore, they forced 21 punts in those 4 playoff games. In the entire regular season, they only forced 47. Key 3rd down stops and takeaways are the two biggest elements of a great defense and in the 2006 playoffs, Indianapolis’ defense managed to get both – despite struggling mightily from September-December.
Last week I wrote briefly on whether or not the idea that “Defense Wins Championships” was a bit outdated. Looking solely at overall rankings in points per game scored/allowed, it seems as if good defenses are still a key element of a Super Bowl winning team. Of the 3 “bad” defenses which have won Super Bowls lately (2006 Colts, 2007 Giants, 2009 Saints), both the Colts and Giants got hot down the stretch to carry their team to a Lombardi trophy.
However, points per game allowed is a pretty simple measure of a defense and doesn’t tell us all that much about the unit in question. Here are some more numbers on the Super Bowl winning defenses:
Yards Per Drive Allowed
Average YPD: 26.2
Average YPD+: 108.8
Best YPD+: 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers (131)
Worst YPD+: 2006 Indianapolis Colts (79)
# of teams <100 YPD+: 8
Points Per Drive Allowed:
Average PPD: 1.36
Average PPD+: 121.6
Best PPD+: 2000 Baltimore Ravens (150)
Worst PPD+: 2006 Indianapolis Colts (75)
# of teams <100 PPD+: 1
Average TO%: 21.8%
Average TO%+: 114.8
Best TO+: 2000 Baltimore Ravens (165)
Worst TO+: 1976 Oakland Raiders (76)
# of teams <100 TO+: 9
Average TD%: 14.9%
Average TD%+: 123.2
Best TD%+: 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (152)
Worst TD%+: 2006 Indianapolis Colts (74)
# of teams <100 YPD+: 3
As you can see, other than the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, Super Bowl defenses have remained pretty consistently above average in most of these variables. Here are the 41 Super Bowl champion defenses from 1970-2010 ranked by my Defensive Efficiency Scores:
The average DSCORE of a Super Bowl winner is 20.83. Only 2 teams in 2011 had a DSCORE that high: San Francisco and Baltimore. The 2011 Patriots checked in at 5.93 and the Giants at -4.42. However, like the 2006 Colts and 2007 Giants, both current Super Bowl teams are playing better than their regular season numbers indicate. Whichever team wins next Sunday will join the recent trend of teams whose defenses got hot at just the right time.