When comparing running back rushing data, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the runner from the quality of their blocking (especially when looking at players who played when only the simplest statistics were kept). One “trick” I like is to look at is the degree of success a back has, rather than the frequency of success – ex: the average length of a back’s big-runs, rather than the percent of their runs that were big. I especially like using this method when comparing known-talented players, looking for “the best of the best”. In addition, by setting a high requirement to be included in the sample we are saved from having to sparse out each player’s prime for comparison. If they didn’t meet the criteria during a season when they were on their last legs, they aren’t penalized.
For this piece, I wanted to examine games where running backs had at least 100 rushing yards. 100 is a fairly arbitrary value but most football fans would agree that a 100 yard rushing game is successful. (Ideally I would like to have set it at 100 adjusted yards – where TDs count as 20 yards, but it was much easier to compile the same-size with traditional yards).
I started with every running back with at least 30 career 100 yard rushing games (regular season only) since the NFL merger in 1970 (until 2015) – as well as 2 Hall of Famers who fell just short (Riggins 29, Allen 25 – this brought the total to 40 backs). Next, I took the rushing data from said-games and calculated each back’s adjusted yards per carry (again, where each TD gives a 20 yard bonus) for their 100 yd-games. (I chose to focus on efficiency because I didn’t want to give too much credit to backs who reached 100 yards by a collection of 3 yard rushes). Next, I subtracted the replacement (defined as 75% league average, here) adjYPC of the years the back played (in 100-yard games). Finally, I multiplied this difference by the back’s rushing attempts per game to obtain their adjusted-value-over-average per game. Now, naturally this isn’t perfect – a back could be hurt by having poor (by adjYPC) games that just hit 100 yards, but it’s a fun exercise nonetheless.
Without further ado, let’s look at the first table that tells you what the headline already has (highlighted players = Hall of Fame).
Among a group of Hall of Famers and Pro Bowlers, LaDainian Tomlinson stands out. In his 100 yard performances he gained more adjusted-value-over-average (per game) than any other back. He managed this on just a moderate amount of carries per game (relative to 100 yard performances), but with the 2nd highest adjYPC in the sample (as well as the 2nd highest adjYPC>replacement). A big part of LT’s efficiency should come as no surprise to Charger fans – his nose for the end zone. His touchdown rate was twice as good as 15 of the 39 remaining backs, and at least 50% better than 32 of the 39. Even if we were to ignore touchdowns, he still accumulated the 3rd most yards per 100-yard game, impressive in its own right.
LT’s greatness was never in question, but I was pleasantly surprised to see him shine so brightly among other legendary names (and that’s without including his receiving prowess!). I’ll finish by presenting the table containing the second half of the data set, and leave you to discuss the results and of course LT’s general greatness.