One of the more exciting plays in football is the long run, i.e. the running back "home-run". Generally the NFL views runs of 40 or more as "home-runs." It is much easier for teams to gain 40+ through the air on a single play than on the ground. There were 305 passing plays of 40+ in the NFL in 2013. There were a whole lot fewer running plays that gained 40 or more (you'll see the data later).
Long passing plays can occur when a single receiver beats his man in coverage and there is no safety to help. Long running plays generally occur under one of two circumstances: either the D gets caught with the second line defenders out of position and the RB has the speed to run away from pursuit after getting to the second level, or the RB is able to break a tackle at the second level and then accelerate before pursuit can catch up. Either way you need a combination of bad defense and RB prowess (elusivity and speed) for a big run to happen. You can have a great RB carrying the ball on a play that is blocked perfectly that only goes for 7 or 8 yards because the RB was unable to make the safety miss.
The NFL is passing league and it is trending to become MORE of a passing league. In 2013 67.6% of all yards gained were through the air. This was the highest % in the history of the league (1994 was close at 67.2%).
(click on the graph to enlarge it)
Only five teams gained 40% of more of their yards on the ground in 2013. With the offenses around the league predicated on the passing game, are home-run backs disappearing or are we seeing a fundamental change in how the running game is used? How should we address this? Well, the NFL tracks the total number of long running plays per team all the way back to 1991. So I tabulated the totals and the result was not what I expected. Secondarily, and more importantly for us Bronco fans, do we need a "home-run" threat at RB?
The league as a whole
click on the graph to zoom in
Keeping in mind that there were only 28 teams in 1991, the total number of 40+ yard runs has been increasing each year by about 2 per year. The total number of 20+ yard runs has been increasing by about 8 per year and the relative standard deviation is about the same. 1994 was a really strange year. There were only 184 20+ yard runs in the entire league that season and there were only 26, 40+ yard runs that season. With 32 teams there are 256 regular season games (32 teams x 16 games /2 teams to play a game = 256). So there is a little more than one 20+ yard run per game currently in the NFL. 40+ yard runs only occur in one out of every 4 games currently, but this is up singificantly from where it was 20 years ago (when we only had 28 teams). With the increased emphasis on the pass in the current NFL, I would have expected this to be trending the opposite direction, so why is this increase happening?
There are a few possible explanations for this phenomenon (more long runs than there were 20 years ago).
1. Defenses are worse now than they were. If you think about a 28 team league, then it's hard to argue the talent in general is not more dilute now than it was in 1991. Unless the total amount of football talent is increasing, by definition, the talent is spread more thin with four more teams. That's a possibility then, defensive backs that used to be able to make a stop before the run got too long can't do that as often now because they aren't as many who are fast/talented/fundamentally sound enough to do so on each team. If your safeties are both below average, you will give up plenty of long runs. The 2008 Broncos are ample evidence of this (they allowed 20 runs of 20+ and 6 runs of 40+). There were only 74 runs of 40+ allowed league-wide that year and we allowed 8% of them. There's a reason Marlon McCree and Marquand Manual didn't last much longer in the NFL after that season (Manual started six games for the 09 Lions - one of the worst defenses in NFL history - 7th worst to be exact).
2. There are more talented runners now than there were then. This argument only works if there are more guys breaking off long runs now than there were then. With so few really long runs occurring, the total number of guys capable of breaking off those long runs has been pretty constant over the past twenty years. There are generally 15-25 players in the league capable of getting 20-40 yards on a single carry. However, there are only about 5 or 6 guys in the league every year who are capable of ripping off 40+ yard runs more than once a year. The high for a team this past season was 5 runs of 40+. Five teams had five runs of 40+ (Bills, Bears, Packers, Vikings and Eagles). On the flipside, there were 4 teams that did not have a single 40+ yard run all season (Bengals, Lions, Saints and Titans). We had one this season (45 by Ball). This has been fairly consistent over the course of the time frame. For example in 1998, the Broncos led the league with 6 runs of 40+ (3 teams had 5). 4 teams had none that year. All six of our runs belonged to TD (Brister had a 38 yard run). The conclusion is that the total number of backs capable of long runs appears to be pretty similar now to what is has been over the past 20 years. We'll see more about this later.
3. Because defenses have to focus so much on the pass (playing nickel more often) longer runs will occur more often. This is an interesting hypothesis. The average number of rushing attempts per team in the NFL has been remarkably consistent over the past 20 years (433 per team is the low - in 2013, with 455 the high in 1997). That means that the average team had roughly one less rushing attempt per game in 2013 than they did in 1997. Since the league went to 32 teams in 2002, they have been 14145 rushing attempts per year in the NFL. This year there were 13871 - about 250 less than the average - which is almost exactly one less rushing attempts per game. So teams aren't running less, but they are getting more long runs. Case in point, in 1994 (the low point) there were 184 runs of 20+ in the NFL on 12550 total rushing attempts (1.47% of runs resulted in a 20+ yard gain). Compare that to 2011 when 378 20+ yard runs occurred on 13971 rushing attempts (2.71%). The rate nearly double between the two years. This seems to be the most plausible explanation for the increase, but I'm curious to hear what others think. The data is below with "max" being the maximum number attained by a single team that year - in 2013 the 49ers had 20 runs of 20+ to lead the league while Bills and Eagles had 5 of 40+ to lead the league.
|Year||20+||max||40+||max||Total run attempts||Avg run attempts per team|
Notice that the most 20+ yard runs that a single team had in this entire timeframe was the 2012 Vikings with 33. That is more than double what the best team had in 1995. 27 of those 33 runs were by AP in 2012. Also note that the the 12 runs of 40+ in 1997 were by the Lions - this was a huge outlier. That outlier is named Barry Sanders. Barry accounted for 11 of those 12 runs (Tommy Vardell had the other). Barry Sanders by himself accounted for 18% of all runs of 40 or more that year in the NFL. It's even more interesting if you look at 1994. Barry Sanders had 6 runs of 40 or more. There were only 26 in the entire league that season. Barry accounted for 23% of them that year. Those 6 runs were for 85, 84, 69, 64, 63 and 62 yards. In an era when RBs generally weren't hitting homeruns, Barry Sanders was the exception.TD was pretty good at them at well.
The "home-run" hitters
When the Broncos traded up to take Ronnie Hillman at 67 in 2011, we were told that he would be a homerun hitter for us, that he would be that running back who struck fear in the heart of the opposing DC because he was capable of taking it to the house any time he touched the ball. In case you haven't been paying attention, he hasn't been that guy. His longest play from scrimmage is a 31 yard run. He may never be "that guy" (this had been debated in other threads), but many of us maintain hope that he will become "that guy". That got me thinking about the homerun threat RB in general. Who are these guys and how often do they hit these home runs? As we saw above, RBs don't hit homeruns very often, but they are hitting them more now than they were 20 years ago. So is the increase in quantity because the same number of players are doing it more often or are there more guys in the league capable of the homerun?
In 2013 there were 40 running backs who had at least one run of 40 or more yards, however, there were only 13 who did it more than once. Some of those guys are household names like AP, CJ2k, CJ Spiller and LeSean McCoy while others are not so much (Rainey, Hunter, Ivory and Lamar Miller). If we make our criterion, 3 or more runs of 40+, then the club get even more exclusive. There were only 5 guys in 2013, 4 guys in 2012, 8 in 2011 - here is the full break down for the entire time-frame
|# of guys with|
|Year||3 or more runs of 40+|
The one guy in 1992 and 1994 was Barry Sanders. It is interesting to see that in the late 90s there were a lot of RBs capable of hitting homeruns (6 or 7) while there had only been one or two guys in the early part of the 90s. The one RB in 2004 to have 3 runs of 40+ was Tiki Barber. Since 2008 there appears to have been a pretty steady number of roughly 6 or 7 RBs in the league capable of hitting the homerun. So about one quarter of the league has one of these guys on their team - RBs who are not only capable of doing it, but are capable of doing it multiple times in a season. This would seem to lend credence to the second argument above (more homerun hitters now than there were before), but it doesn't necessarily answer the underlying cause (more offensive talent or worse/different defensive play).
If we look back at the history of the NFL, Barry Sanders has the most runs of 50 or more yards in a career with 25. (I know I switched to 50+, but that is because I am using some of the data compiled here) Sanders had 25 runs of 50 or more in his career. AP is catching up quickly with 21 already and should surpass Barry Sanders with one or two more productive seasons. Here is the list of the top guys sine 1998 (with Sanders thrown in) for runs of 50 or more (minimum 5) - highlighted players are still active. pro-football-reference.com only tracks individual runs back as far as the 1998 season, so I don't know how many some of the guys played prior to that have total - some of those listed played prior to 98. I also show catches by the RBs that went for 50+
This list is not exhaustive - I may have left a few guys off since I had to compile this myself (anybody that I am forgetting here?)
Relevance to the (current) Broncos
We have already spend a decently high draft pick looking for a homerun threat. Looking at the youtube highlights and you will see that Hillman was able to break off these runs in college, despite not being able to so in the NFL (albeit in limited carries). The bigger question for the Broncos is whether or not we NEED a homerun RB.
One it's face, this seems like a simple question to answer. The Broncos scored the most points in the history of the NFL WITHOUT a homerun RB carrying the ball. In fact, PFM has rarely had a homerun threat in the backfield with him. Edgerrin James had 6 runs of 40 or more in 7 season with the Colts (and only two went for TDs). The RBs who shared the backfield with PFM after Edge left accounted for 4 runs of 40 or more in 4 seasons (2 by Addai and 2 by Brown). So PFM has NEVER really played with a back capable of consistently breaking the long run. While it would be a nice luxury to have for our aging veteran QB (much like Elway had with TD late in his career), it is far from a necessity. Let's also get this out of the way - no defensive coordinator is going to play 8 defenders in the box consistently (if at all) against a PFM-led offense. Daring the greatest QB to ever play the game to beat you with the pass is not smart, at all. MMkay?
So what about looking at the 20-40 yard runs. Has PFM played with guys capable of getting these consistently and do we have one of these guys on the roster (a doubles hitter, if you will)? Edge had 34 carries that gained 20-39 yards during his 7 seasons with the Colts, so roughly 5 per year. Addai had 6 but only 3 occurred in the 3 years when he was the main RB for the Colts (2 per year). Donald Brown had 2 in 2010 when he was the main RB with PFM. So in reality, PFM has not really had a RB who was a doubles hitter since he played with Edge - although Knowshon had 5 carries of 20-39 yards this year (Ball had 1). So maybe what we really need is a guy capable of getting 4+ yards on every carry even if he is not going to break off long runs. I think that we have that with Montee Ball. If fact ball may have more big play running ability than Moreno, but what I liked most from him was his ability to get positive yardage on just about every carry. Moreno was stuffed on 34 of his 241 carries in 2013 (14.1% of carries) while Ball was stuffed on 20 of his 120 carries (16.7%). Admittedly Ball had 7 of those stuff occur in his first four NFL games, so he looked much better in the second half of the season than he did in the first half (his stuffed % was horrible early in the year). A stuff is a run for zero or negative yards. For comparison sake, Clinton Portis in 2003 for the Broncos was stuffed 44 times on 290 carries (15.2%).
So back to the question of the homerun (or even doubles) RB? The five guys who hit the long runs in 2013 were Matt Forte, CJ Spiller, LeSean McCoy, Demarco Murray and Adrian Peterson. Each of those guys had 8 or more runs of 20+ and 3 or more runs of 40+. Do we want one? The argument goes two ways. Defensive coordinators already have to respect our passing attack (understatement), so adding a long run threat would be gravy. Of course we want one. However, we don't want to commit much (if any) of our available money to a FA RB (like Murray) and we have already used high draft picks on RBs in the last two drafts. Additionally any homerun threat at RB would also have to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield AND pass-block like a champ. This can't be understated. Whatever you think of Moreno, he was both willing and able to pass block very effectively when called on to do so. Ball got much better in this respect as the season wore on. Outside of his fumbles (which were huge), Hillman has so far shown to be poor in his career at blitz pick-up. If the homerun threat can't catch and pass-block, then your offense becomes much more predictable when he's in AND you can't run the hurry-hurry offense that takes advantage of defensive mismatches anywhere near as much.
So what do we do at RB this offseason?