And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
Previsouly: Parts 1a, 1b, 1c
I have done a terrible job of branding this series. The idea behind it is that football has changed and coaches haven’t. The game used to be about managing down and distance, putting yourself in a makeable third down, and hoping your defense can win with 17 points. Now offenses are more sophisticated at both running and passing. Third downs that used to be virtually out of reach are still tough but more possible and the upsides of going for bigger chunks of yardage on first and second down have begun to outweigh the risks of longer third downs. This changes how both offensive and defensive coaches need to think and how they allocate resources and personnel. Some pieces are now worth more and others less.
The traditional running game used to be the focal point of this philosophy. The traditional running game is the best football tool for limiting variance on a down by down basis. The quarterbacks job is to hand the ball off, throw a couple of beautiful play action deep balls a game, bail out a third down or two, then feed words like "focused" to the media.
As I spent the last several years combing through nearly ten years of play by play data, I kept coming back to the same question: Why do teams run the ball so much? I parsed the data time after time to try and find something I had missed and I couldn’t find it. Of the top individual PAN seasons among QBs and RBs since 2006, only 3 running backs (Boise St’s Ian Johnson in 2006 and Montee Ball and Trent Richardson this year) cracked the top 100. But PAN doesn’t take into account burning the clock at the end of a game. So I switched to WPA (Win Percent Added) which accounts for the clock. Under WPA rankings, Toby Gerhart in 2009 is the only running back to break into the top 200 seasons. 199 quarterback seasons and only 1 running back season.
Now this isn’t to say that a running game isn’t valuable. Of my ten highest rated offensive seasons noted below only Oklahoma, Hawaii and Houston didn’t feature prominent rushing attacks. In fact of the ten, I would categorize 5 as rushing spreads, 3-4 (Baylor is tough to categorize) as college passing spreads and Wisconsin as a traditional run-first offense.
The running game is alive and well but the traditional running back is harder to justify.
The Wisconsin Case
Montee Ball had an outstanding season and along with Trent Richardson clearly a top 2 back in the country. But was he the most valuable player on his own offense? Here are the traditional numbers for Ball and Russell Wilson
307 att, 1923 yards & 33 TDs rushing (NCAA record 39 overall TD)
225/309, 3175 yards & 33 TD & 4 INT (NCAA record 191.8 pass efficiency)
and the advanced metrics
+6.1 PAN and 0.10 WPA/Game
+11.4 PAN and 0.37 WPA/Game
The Wisconsin offense was a thing of beauty that could have been a national title contender if their –1 defense didn’t lead them to three losses while scoring at least 29 points in each of them.
So who was more responsible, Wilson or Ball? Wilson averaged more yards/play, had almost no turnovers and significantly higher advanced metrics. But let's dig down a bit and compare the two.
Nearly half of all Russell Wilson’s plays (rushes and passes) went for 7 yards or more. Ball had 28% of his plays go for the same distance. For negative plays, they are nearly even with sacks and all Ball without. The area were Montee Ball’s plays went was in the 0-3 yard range, i.e. the manage the down and distance range. This obviously wasn’t a bad season for Ball, it was a great season and he was still dominated by his quarterback in terms of output.
Now this take into consideration down and distance considerations so I put together a similar slide with EV.
Montee Ball had 15% of his plays go for at least a half standard deviation above average. Russell Wilson’s number was twice that at 30% with minimal negative offset.
Looking at a second way, here is there play EV value ranked.
As good as Montee Ball was last year, the offense should have even gone to Wilson, more.
RIP Running Back?
Obviously not as a position but as a premiere position I have a hard time justifying the running back’s historical position as at nearly the same level as the quarterback. Even at their best great running backs at similar value to decent quarterbacks. Two offseasons ago I did a study on returning starters and found that of all positions on the field, returning starts by running backs had the least effect of any position on future team success. Before signing day when I looked at the value of recruiting ranking to future team success, running back recruiting was one of the lowest correlations to future offensive success.
It’s not that running backs can’t be valuable. Montee Ball’s +6 PAN is outstanding. It’s more that a big upside for a running back is rare, hard to predict and is still less than you can get from a quarterback. Of the 29 QB’s and RB’s that were +3 or better last year only five were running backs, the rest were quarterbacks. Running back has become a low marginal production position.
Wrapping This Up Next Week
There is a good argument to be made that Wilson’s success is a byproduct of the attention paid to Ball. It obviously didn’t occur in a vacuum and I have no doubt that Wilson benefited from the attention paid Ball more than vice versa. In next week’s final part of this series we’ll look at how teams can adjust their strategies on both sides of the ball to maximize the new realities.
We now return you to your commitments in progress