Measuring the Value of the Running Back

Jamie Squire

I am taking a break from most of the work I don on stats, which focuses on team performances, to evaluate the running back position. You can view all of them at

I know most fans (if not every fan) at MHR believe that Peyton Manning deserved the MVP over Adrian Peterson this past season. While I could go into greater detail as to why Manning, and certainly Brady or Rodgers as well, was the real MVP of 2012, there is no need. You can read my analysis on the subject here.

The purpose of this article actually stems from some of the data I used in the Most Valuable vs. Most Outstanding article. Yards have never been a great indicator of success and here are stats from the 2012 regular season to show this:

  1. Team with more rushing yards: 180-74 (70.9%)
  2. Team with more total yards: 160-94 (63.0%)
  3. Team with more passing yards: 139-115 (54.7%)

To put that in perspective, here are the top efficiency indicators that the NFL and I have created:

  1. Teams with a better Plays/TD score: 231-24 (90.6%)
  2. Teams with a better Yards/TD score: 214-41 (83.9%)
  3. Teams with a better NFL passer rating: 209-45 (82.3%)
  4. Teams with a better QueueStats QBR: 209-46 (82.0%)
  5. Teams with few turnovers: 163-42 (79.5%)
  6. Teams with a higher QueueStats Yards/Attempt: 187-68 (73.3%)

Note: Not all of the numbers will add up to 255 (we had 1 game that ended in a tie) since there were ties in the stats between the teams.

In every case, efficiency stats and turnovers will always be more important than yards. The question I wanted to answer is how to measure the value in a player like a running back where yards are the main form of measurement.

The article above addresses this issue. Teams win by scoring points instead of yards. I looked at the stats from the two previous MVP winners at running back - Ladainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander. I separated the totals each running back had when the offense scoring a touchdown or field goal and when the offense was forced to punt or had a turnover of some sort.

Both running backs saw an increase of over 100% in their YPC averages on scoring drives compared to non-scoring drives. LT went from 2.8 to 6.5 (130%) and SA went from 2.8 to 6.3 (120%). In comparison, Adrian Peterson went from 4.2 to 7.3 (72%).

Not only that, both running backs ran for most of their yards on the scoring drives. LT ran for 82% of his yards on scoring drives while SA ran for 81% of his yards on scoring drives. In comparison, AP ran for 71% of his yards on scoring drives for Minnesota.

Its important to note that Matt Hasselbeck and Philip Rivers were better QBs during those seasons than Ponder was in 2012, however, that only further proves the importance of a QB. LT scored 31 touchdowns (NFL record) while SA scored 28 touchdowns (2nd - NFL history). Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson scored 14 touchdowns (119th-tied with 38 other RBs).

As good as Peterson was, many of his yards were empty and had little impact on the game. Even when Minnesota wasn't scoring he was still averaging over 4.0 YPC. I decided to apply this with Denver as a team to see what the state of the running game was for the 2012 regular season.

Denver featured 5 running backs. Here are the totals:

  1. Season totals: 450 carries, 1836 yards, 4.1 YPC
  2. Scoring drives: 275 carries, 1242 yards, 4.5 YPC
  3. Non-Scoring drives: 175 carries, 594 yards, 3.4 YPC
  4. Scoring drives saw a 32% increase in the YPC average compared to the non-scoring drives
  5. Drives ending in a TD (49): 159 carries, 751 yards, 4.7 YPC
  6. Drives ending in a FG (26): 116 carries, 491 yards, 4.2 YPC
  7. Scoring on drives resulting in a TD had a 38% increase in YPC
  8. Scoring on drives resulting in a FG had a 24% increase in YPC

In the end, there was a definite increase, but hardly a significant one. Nine running backs averaged what Denver did on its scoring drives for their entire 2012 season. Six of them averaged what Denver did on its TD drives or better for their entire 2012 season.

When we look deeper into each drive (75 total scoring drives), we see further evidence that the running game was simply there to take the pressure off of Manning, instead of another weapon for the offense.
The average scoring drive was about 60 yards. Denver averaged 3.7 carries per drive, gaining 16.6 yards per drive.

  • On 40 of the 75 scoring drives, Denver failed to gain more than 15 yards on the ground
  • On 26 of the 75 scoring drives, Denver failed to gain more than 9 yards on the ground
  • On 17 of the 75 scoring drives, Denver failed to gain more than 4 yards on the ground

If we put it another way:

  • On 41 of the 75 scoring drives, Denver had 3 or fewer carries
  • On 22 of the 75 scoring drives, Denver had 2 or fewer carries
  • On 15 of the 75 scoring drives, Denver had 1 or 0 carries

Denver did not run the ball much, whether they were playing well or not. In fact, the Broncos actually had more carries on drives that ended in field goals instead of touchdowns. Denver averaged 4.5 carries on drives ending in a FG compared to only 3.2 carries on drives ending in a TD.

Yes, we all know Denver was so good in 2012 because of Manning, but the running game was just simply there. It was mediocre and it was mediocre almost all of the time. Some here may not like Pro Football Focus (PFF), but they ranked Denver as one of the best offensive lines in pass protection, but they also ranked them 16th in run blocking.

The biggest concern I have after looking at the numbers from many sites as well as my own research is that I have come to a couple conclusions:

  1. Denver's offensive line may be good in pass-protection (a lot of that has to do with Manning), but it is very "average" in run blocking and really struggled against most good defenses
  2. Denver's RBs were very mediocre in 2012

Again, I have no idea which position was the weaker link and caused the other to perform poorly, but the reality is the entire running game was very poor. Injuries were definitely a problem, so here is hoping Denver doesn't have to deal with that issue in 2013.

This topic was mentioned in the series 5 Things I Want To See During Pre-Season by Big_Pete1999, where he discusses his hopes for draft pick Montee Ball. I thought I would echo the believe that this team needs a good running game, which it has lacked for a while.

One of the reasons many passing teams like New England, Green Bay, Indianapolis/Denver and New Orleans have struggled in the playoffs is because the running game is crucial, even if it isn't prolific. One dimensional teams usually lose in the playoffs, whether its all offense and no defense, all passing and a little running or anything else.

Recently, a writer for the NFL just had to go and say Denver's offense was going to be "unstoppable" in 2013. He gave 3 reasons for this declaration, but the first two had to do with Manning and Welker. The reality is, the passing game for Denver was excellent in 2012. The running game was not. His first reason should have been Montee Ball.

The only thing that will make Denver's offense in 2013 close to whatever that NFL writer views as unstoppable is a running game that averages way more than 3.8 YPC (23rd) for a season and scores more than 12 touchdowns (13th-tied).

I have no doubt that Denver can improve and become a more versatile offense. I have no doubt they can be the best offense in the NFL. In order for that to happen, they will need to improve upon a running game that was very mediocre in 2012.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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