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Do the Chargers Possess Value at Running Back?

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What impact does a RB himself have on the game?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at New York Giants
Melvin Gordon finding the end zone, a common occurrence.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

First off, I want to make it clear this isn’t an analysis of Melvin Gordon’s talent or abilities. Rather, this is a look into ideas I’ve been having regarding which measures reflect what an individual running back produces – something that can differentiate him from other backs in a positive way, generally makes a noted impact on the outcome of a game, and isn’t closely tied to the quality of his blocking. You can scout film to find a RB’s positive traits, or you can chart film for a statistic that is reflective solely of the back (such as broken/missed tackles), but a RB can exhibit these traits and gather these stats on a run that doesn’t help the team much (other than purely having the presence of a run for “balance”). Given that the run game is already low in value when compared to the passing game (though I will touch on which RBs bring value there, later), I wanted to search for measures that can highlight those backs who make an impact for their team (even in spite of poor blocking); measures that are readily available to everyone (at least during the era in which play-by-play data is available).

Within the analytic-blogging community, rushing yards per carry is often derided as being misleading & not reflective of the gains the runner is actually regularly making. While I definitely agree it can be misleading due to its sensitivity to outliers (look no further than Isaiah Crowell ’s 4.8 ypc falling to 4.4 when removing his season long 85 yard run), I believe an aspect of it is key to highlighting RB impact. Many offer rushing success-rate as an alternative, but I am firmly of the belief that while those chunk-gains are what you consistently want from your running game, those small gains are generally reflective of the offensive line’s blocking. (There’s a reason Football Outsider’s attempt at a run-blocking metric credits all rushing yards 4 or less yards from the line towards the OL). Because of this I think it’s important to highlight yards gained past the line’s usual zone of influence.

I chose to look at runs of 10 yards+, 15 yards+, and 20 yards+, so you can pick your own definition of “big play”. (A better OL should mean more opportunities for big runs, but overall I don’t think the rankings are swayed by this). Rather than look at % of carries with these gains – which usually penalizes bell-cow/feature backs for getting extra opportunities (a positive for RBs), I only adjusted the total gains by number of games played. In addition, I calculated these rates a second time, but this time adding in “long to-go distance” 1st down runs that didn’t quite reach the desired run-length (where, my definition of a long to-go situation was &6+, to negate short-yardage OL gains). For example, with 10+ yard runs I added all 1st downs (on &6+) that went for 9 or less yards, with 15+ I added all 1st downs of 14 or less yards, and so on.

The next measure-of-impact I chose to examine was TD rate, per attempt (for rushTD)** and per game (for rush&recTD). I did not adjust rushing TD totals for yards-to-go or number of attempts within 10 yards of the end zone (where most rushing TD occur), because while OL quality and opportunity could affect rates, I’ve found that even when you adjust for these variables some backs just have that “knack” for finding pay dirt. (The prime example being our own hall of famer LaDainian Tomlinson, the rushing TD king in my opinion). Lastly, I chose to look at the average of each back’s 5+ yard runs. (This does include outlier runs, but was just meant to exclude the yards FO credits to the OL).

**Note, I realize I previously said per-attempt (aka %) can penalize bell-cow backs, but when it comes to TD rate I’ve found that those who are “special” when it comes to finding the end zone (like LT) aren’t hampered by this measure (probably because some of that high carry total comes close to the endzone).

Now, I’ve spent some time outlining the hows & whys, but I know you’re probably looking for the results. My source spreadsheet for the rushing data is a bit cumbersome for this article, but you’re free to view it here. Instead, I present you with a table containing Gordon’s ranks in these various categories (as well as the ranks of other prominent backs). These ranks are out of 32 running backs, with a minimum of 170 carries since the start of the 2016 season (with the stats going through MNF on the 16th. I was going to make the cut-off 200, but I liked that 170 produced an average of 1 back per team.

Yea, I noticed I’m missing a T in Elliott
Where RBs rank in these categories. Blue = good!

This should be a fairly straight forward analysis - the only category Melvin Gordon did NOT rank in the top 10 in was yards per rushing attempt, which was only listed for comparison purposes (as was attempts per game). In all meaningful categories, Gordon ranks very well. Since a rookie season wherein he was shut out of the endzone, he has proven himself one of the best backs at putting points on the board for his team. Gordon was once a back who consistently failed to extend medium length runs, but has become one who will consistently break off larger gains if given enough opportunities. I think the fact that the disparity between his Y/A rank and the remaining categories is much greater than other backs shows that it’s the frequency of those small chunk-gains that hurts his average (in spite of long runs), gains the OL is usually responsible for providing. (In fact, the Chargers only rank 30th in stuffed-rate this season, allowed a stuffed run 28% of the time!). He isn’t perfect by any means, he can still show some inconsistency in technique & production, but I think his rankings here demonstrate he is providing lots of rushing value to the team and that he has grown into a much better player than the one we saw his rookie season.

Finally, let’s take a look at the rushing value I mentioned earlier. Below is a table of the top 16 backs as ranked by successful receptions per game. Just as QBs can inflate their completion percentage with super-short, low-value, completions, so can RBs inflate their perceived contribution to the passing game by accumulating check-down passes & getting tackled right away. (An example: Ezekiel Elliott ’s receptions-per-game numbers make it look like he’s getting much more involved in the passing game this year, but his success-rate is considerably lower than it was in 2016 (and it wasn’t great then, either)). I also included a column for large-gains (15+) per game, to continue our theme of highlighting large-gains.

Running Back Successful Reception Per Game

Gordon ranked well before, but it’s in the passing game (the more valuable half of any offense) where he really sets himself apart from the pack. Gordon ranks third in successful receptions per game. While he also ranks 3rd in targets per game, his ability to rack up successful catches is not just a result of targeting-volume (though that still tends to highlight talented receivers), he also ranks 5th in % of receptions that are successful (& 8th in % of targets). Gordon also ranks 4th in number of long receptions per game, as well as leading all backs in receiving touchdowns despite missing more games than 60% of the sample. The bottom line is that Gordon produces in the passing game, a must for any back drafted in the first couple rounds in my opinion. Hopefully in time there will be stabilization (and health) across the offensive line and he will be able to accumulate those chunk-gains more often, and get more opportunities for big plays. As long as he stays healthy, he will remain a strong offensive contributor for years to come.