Football Outsiders puts out "Quick Reads" every Tuesday of the season, listing the top performers of the week, according to their DVOA & DYAR metrics. The Top 5 Running Backs this week (and Bill Barnwell's commentary) are so interesting, I thought I should share:
Five most valuable running backs
Our final running back section of the year will have a theme. First, let's travel through logic. If Charles can run for 259 rushing yards against a Broncos rush defense that had everything to play for, the Chiefs have a fantastic rushing attack, the Broncos' rush defense is terrible, or it's a combination of the two. The Broncos were 11th in rush defense DVOA before this week, and while the Raiders gashed them two weeks ago, they dominated the Giants' power rushing attack as recently as Thanksgiving. So the Chiefs' rushing offense had a pretty great game.
Now, for a team to have a great rushing attack, they need both a quality running back and an effective offensive line. Charles has been extremely impressive since taking the starting job -- his performance over eight starts put him on a pace for 1,936 yards -- but the line also deserves a fair amount of credit.
Here comes the mean part, where we have to reconcile all this together. If the Chiefs just have a great offensive line, how bad could Larry Johnson possibly be to have done so poorly behind them over the first half of the season? And if Charles is really an elite back playing behind an average line, how incompetent is the Chiefs' coaching staff for playing Johnson over him during the first half of the season? This is lesson 1,400, why you don't spend tons of money on a halfback.
In 2007, the Bills selected Marshawn Lynch in the first-round, and added Fred Jackson as an undrafted free agent, thanks to either some impressive performances in second-division indoor football leagues or the fact that both he and Marv Levy went to Coe College. You pick which. Since then, Jackson has carried the ball 425 times for 1933 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and caught 105 passes for 878 yards (8.4 yards per catch). Lynch has ran the ball 650 times for 2601 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and caught 93 passes for 663 yards (7.1 yards per catch). Lynch has pocketed close to $11 million from his contract. Jackson's earned about $3 million as a pro player. This is lesson 1,401, why you don't spend first-round picks on halfbacks.
Instead of futily handing the ball off to Reggie Bush for two yards, the Texans have built a rushing attack around third-round pick Steve Slaton and now Foster, an undrafted free agent who split time at Tennessee. Foster benefited from the absence of Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, but his 20 carries yielded six first downs and two touchdowns. A success rate of 60 percent is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of who's across the line. This is lesson 1,402, why you pass on a top-five halfback for a top-five defensive end.
It was interesting to see the Ravens rely almost exclusively on McGahee as the clock-killer late in Oakland, although it's hard to argue with giving him the ball after that highlight reel stiff-arm of Hiram Eugene. As nifty as that play and his 14 touchdowns are, McGahee's been an obvious disappointment in both Buffalo and Baltimore, failing to meet expectations at either stop. His touchdown total appears to make him a good goal-line back, but that's just not the case; his total is the result of usage, not ability.
McGahee ran for seven touchdowns inside the five-yard line this year. That's an impressive figure, but it took him eleven carries, including five from the 1-yard line. Given recent rates of scoring on each carry from the 1-yard line, 2-yard line, and on, McGahee would've been expected to score 4.94 touchdowns, meaning that he was 2.06 touchdowns above average inside the five.
So, scoring seven when you're supposed to score five is a good thing, right? The problem is that McGahee hasn't consistently shown this skill as a pro; over the course of his career, the difference between McGahee's expected touchdowns and actual touchdowns inside the five, by year, has run like this: -0.47, -4.56, 0.92, -2.46, 1.61, 2.06. Over his career, he's still -2.89 touchdowns below average inside the five. Furthermore, the other Ravens' backs (Ray Rice and Le'Ron McClain) were also above-average inside the five, scoring three touchdowns against an expectation of 2.13. It's hard to construct an argument that suggests that there's something special about McGahee's abilities as a goal line back in 2009, and whether the Ravens use him as a goal-line back next year or a team signs a cut McGahee to serve as their goal-line back, they're going to be disappointed. This is lesson 1,403, why there's no such thing as a "nose for the end zone", with lesson 1,401 as a prerequisite.
Hamilton converted his chance from the 1-yard line, had three first downs on his other nine rushing attempts, put up a 70 percent success rate on the ground, and picked up three first downs as a receiver. He wasn't the poor man's Reggie Bush on Sunday; he was the poor Reggie Bush. This is lesson 1,404, and the final lesson of our class: Scheme, versatility, and blocking are more important than about 98 percent of what mortal running backs can do.
Barnwell is one of the strongest opponents I've seen to using serious resources on the RB position. He obviously thought that signing Michael Turner to such a huge contract two years ago was a mistake (or will be in the long run) by Dimitroff. What do you guys think? Are Running Backs over-rated? Would we have been better off using that money to upgrade the defense, and handing the starting job to (oft-injured) Jerious Norwood (or going by committee)? It's pretty hard for me to argue with the results Dimitroff has given us, but it is interesting to consider.