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Archive for March, 2006

Team records of individuals

Posted by Doug on March 31, 2006

Yesterday's rant made me curious about generalizations along the lines of "Player X played on great teams." So I rounded up the top 20 rushers in history and computed the overall record of their teams. I threw out the years in which the given player was not the leading rusher on his team, which explains why these numbers don't exactly match up with the Smith and Payton numbers I cited yesterday.


Emmitt Smith 122-102-0 0.545
Walter Payton 100- 79-0 0.559
Barry Sanders 78- 82-0 0.487
Curtis Martin 95- 81-0 0.540
Jerome Bettis 93- 83-0 0.528
Eric Dickerson 81- 78-0 0.509
Tony Dorsett 111- 56-0 0.665
Jim Brown 79- 34-5 0.691
Marshall Faulk 96- 80-0 0.545
Marcus Allen 105- 63-0 0.625
Franco Harris 121- 51-1 0.702
Thurman Thomas 97- 47-0 0.674
John Riggins 74- 55-0 0.574
O.J. Simpson 45- 95-2 0.324
Ricky Watters 86- 57-1 0.601
Eddie George 80- 48-0 0.625
Corey Dillon 50- 78-0 0.391
Ottis Anderson 64- 56-1 0.533
Earl Campbell 42- 47-0 0.472
Edgerrin James 71- 25-0 0.740

Certainly a high team winning percentage could be cited as evidence either for or against a given player in a greatest-ever debate. Please note that I am expressly refusing to make any point here. I'm just presenting the list for your amusement.

Because I can sense the request coming, I'll go ahead and compute this for quarterbacks and wide receivers. But I want to be clear about what these numbers are. This is not the team's record in games started by the quarterback. It is the sum of the team's seasonal record for seasons in which the quarterback was the team's leading passer. In 1983, for instance, the Dolphins were 12-4. Because he was Miami's leading passer that year, Dan Marino gets the entire 12-4 even though he only played 11 games. Why? Because it's the best I can do. I don't have data on which quarterbacks started which games.

Dan Marino            154-101-0  0.604
Brett Favre 140- 84-0 0.625
John Elway 161- 93-1 0.633
Warren Moon 117-106-0 0.525
Fran Tarkenton 131-116-6 0.530
Vinny Testaverde 94-129-1 0.422
Drew Bledsoe 96- 96-0 0.500
Dan Fouts 96-111-1 0.464
Joe Montana 132- 51-1 0.720
Johnny Unitas 119- 61-5 0.657
Dave Krieg 110- 97-0 0.531
Boomer Esiason 82-109-0 0.429
Jim Kelly 108- 67-0 0.617
Jim Everett 73-102-0 0.417
Jim Hart 92- 93-5 0.497
Steve Deberg 57-109-2 0.345
Kerry Collins 75- 85-0 0.469
John Hadl 90- 81-10 0.525
Phil Simms 104- 71-0 0.594
Peyton Manning 80- 48-0 0.625

Nothing ticks me off more than a guy that has double-digit ties and therefore messes up my formatting. Curse you, John Hadl!

I gave a wide receiver credit (or blame) for a season if he was one of his team's top two wide receivers, as measured by receiving yards.

Jerry Rice            188- 98-1  0.657
Tim Brown 114-110-0 0.509
James Lofton 101- 96-3 0.512
Cris Carter 126- 82-0 0.606
Henry Ellard 95-112-0 0.459
Andre Reed 127- 96-0 0.570
Steve Largent 96-100-0 0.490
Irving Fryar 95-111-1 0.461
Art Monk 116- 69-0 0.627
Marvin Harrison 92- 68-0 0.575
Jimmy Smith 90- 70-0 0.562
Isaac Bruce 86- 74-0 0.537
Charlie Joiner 122-125-2 0.494
Michael Irvin 96- 64-0 0.600
Don Maynard 79- 83-6 0.488
Rod Smith 93- 51-0 0.646
Gary Clark 91- 52-0 0.636
Stanley Morgan 102- 80-0 0.560
Keenan McCardell 103- 73-0 0.585
Terrell Owens 95- 65-0 0.594

6 Comments | Posted in History

The Emmitt Smith rant

Posted by Doug on March 30, 2006

With greatness comes backlash, and every great player has collected his share of detractors. But my observation is that Emmitt Smith has it worse than most. It seems to me like the majority of football fans believe Emmitt was nothing special. "You put him on any other team and he would've been good but not great," is a common sentiment. Feel free to let me know if I'm flogging a straw man here, but I hear that a lot.

Consider the period from 1998 to 2000. During that time, the Cowboys were one game under .500, were coached by Chan Gailey and Dave Campo, and won zero playoff games. I'm a big Aikman fan, but he was pretty much finished. So was Irvin. Some of the great names were still on the line, but their best years were way behind them at that point. These were the age 29, 30, and 31 seasons for Emmitt, who had taken a ridiculous amount of punishment in his first 28 years. What you've got there is a situation where an RB who was merely above average would probably struggle.

Emmitt rushed for 3900 yards and 32 TDs during those three years. And they weren't Eddie George yards, either. He was above 4.1 yards per carry all three years. He was in the top five in the NFL in rushing yards two of those three years.

We don't need to speculate on what Emmitt would have done if he had played for a mediocre team. He did play for a mediocre team from 1998-2000, and what he did was amass more rushing yards from age 29-31 than any player in NFL history aside from Walter Payton and Curtis Martin (yes, I know, Sanders and Brown retired before their age 31 seasons). Most good-but-not-great running backs are struggling to hold a job at age 30. Emmitt was a top five rusher on a bad team.

Those of you who would now accuse me of selecting that particular three-year stretch in an effort to make Emmitt look good would be walking right into a trap. The fact is that you can pick any three-year stretch out of Emmitt's career and he will be among the leading rushers in NFL history in that age group. And the point is that his supporting cast wasn't great in all of those stretches and was downright bad in others.

Smith played on good teams early in his career and bad teams late in his career. Walter Payton did the opposite. Barry Sanders played on bad teams in September and October every year and good ones in November and December. Jim Brown, of course, only played on good teams. During his career, Emmitt's Smith's teams were a total of 12 games over .500. Jim Brown's were 45 games over .500. Walter Payton's were 28 games over .500. (Sanders' were four under). Why does Emmitt get singled out for being a coattail-rider?

No one knows how Emmitt's prime would have looked without Troy, Erik, et al. I am not going to argue that he would still be the all-time rushing champ had he switched places with Sanders or Payton. Nor am I going to argue that he didn't benefit from some good fortune. All record holders did. But he was and is one of the very best running backs in history.

13 Comments | Posted in History

Old running backs

Posted by Doug on March 29, 2006

This is my first week doing this, so I'm still trying to figure out how this here blog is going to operate. A few posts back I promised you a more mathematically elaborate version of The Favorite Toy, and that's still coming. But along the way I keep stumbling across interesting bits of trivia that seem worth mentioning. Plus, all this talk about Emmitt reminded me that I need to deliver my "Emmitt Smith was not some slightly above average running back who happened to win the supporting cast lottery" rant.

So I'm going to go ahead and mention the trivia bits, deliver the rants as needed, and get back to The Toy whenever I get back to it.

My most recent trivial observation is that old running backs are getting more productive. Good seasons from running backs in their 30s used to be rare, but they are becoming much more common. Below is a chart showing the percentage of the league's rushing yards and TDs (by running backs only --- QBs and WRs have been eliminated from the data) accounted for by backs aged 30 or more. As you can see, those percentages are higher now than they ever have been. The Teams column shows the number of teams whose leading rusher was 30 or older.

Year    PctYD   PctTD  Teams    Top 30+ rushers
1978     5.5     5.6     2    Otis (664)  Bleier (633)
1979     6.3     8.2     2    Riggins (1153)  Csonka (837)
1980     5.1     5.6     1    Harris (789)  Armstrong (470)
1981     6.2     7.2     1    Harris (987)  Riggins (714)
1982     7.3     3.0     2    Harris (604)  Riggins (553)
1983     9.8    12.3     3    Riggins (1347)  Harris (1007)
1984    12.6    15.1     4    Payton (1684)  Riggins (1239)
1985    13.4     9.3     2    Payton (1551)  Dorsett (1307)
1986     9.0     6.5     3    Payton (1333)  Dorsett (748)
1987     5.9     6.0     0    Pollard (536)  Payton (533)
1988     9.5    13.6     2    Brooks (931)  Ferrell (924)
1989    11.3    11.7     3    Brooks (1239)  Anderson (1023)
1990    14.1    17.3     3    Brooks (1004)  Anderson (784)
1991    13.7    13.9     3    Okoye (1031)  Craig (590)
1992    14.0    16.5     4    Walker (1070)  Byner (998)
1993     6.4    11.8     2    Allen (764)  Walker (746)
1994     6.1     7.1     2    Allen (709)  Walker (528)
1995     4.6     3.4     1    Allen (890)  Byner (432)
1996     7.8     9.5     2    Thomas (1033)  Allen (830)
1997     6.7     7.3     0    Thomas (643)  Allen (505)
1998    11.0    10.2     2    Sanders (1491)  Allen (700)
1999    13.6    15.3     3    Smith (1397)  Watters (1210)
2000    12.7    13.7     3    Watters (1242)  Smith (1203)
2001    12.6     9.7     5    Hearst (1206)  Smith (1021)
2002    15.8    17.9     6    Stewart (1021)  Smith (982)
2003    19.1    24.2     7    Holmes (1420)  Martin (1308)
2004    19.0    23.7     6    Martin (1697)  Dillon (1635)
2005    18.6    21.4     6    Barber (1860)  Dunn (1416)

This might be a fluke. It is a lock that these percentages will decrease next year, probably by a lot. Barber, Dunn, and Mike Anderson will almost certainly see declines, Curtis Martin and Corey Dillon won't be able to pick up much --- if any --- of the slack, and the only runner of any consequence who turns 30 this year is Fred Taylor.

8 Comments | Posted in History

Portis and Emmitt

Posted by Doug on March 28, 2006

Last time I ran some quick calculations which indicated that Clinton Portis is currently the greatest threat to Emmitt Smith's rushing record. Both Emmitt and Clinton played their rookie seasons at age 21. Here are their numbers through four years:

          RSH   YD    AVG   TD    REC    YD   AVG  TD
Smith 1264 5697 4.51 50 189 1235 6.5 3
Portis 1258 5930 4.71 45 141 1129 8.0 4

And here are the top ten rushers through the first four years of a career. The age listed in the last column is the player's age during his fifth season.


Player RSH YD AGE
Eric Dickerson 1465 6968 27
Earl Campbell 1404 6457 27
Terrell Davis 1343 6413 27
Clinton Portis 1258 5930 25
LaDainian Tomlinson 1363 5899 26
Emmitt Smith 1262 5699 25
Barry Sanders 1189 5674 25
Eddie George 1360 5365 27
Walter Payton 1179 5316 25
Curtis Martin 1327 5086 26

Note that the guys who ended up with the record and the other guy who would have are the ones who (a) entered the league at 21 and (b) got the fewest carries in their first four years. In both these ways, Portis fits the profile of a future record-holder.

1 Comment | Posted in History

Milestones and the favorite toy

Posted by Doug on March 26, 2006

In the 1980s, legendary baseball author Bill James developed a quick-and-dirty method of estimating a player's chance of eclipsing a particular milestone. I'll describe it while working through LaDainian Tomlinson's chance of breaking Emmitt Smith's rushing record:


  1. Compute the "need yards." Tomlinson has 7361 yards and needs 18355 to catch Emmitt, so his need yards is 10994

  2. Compute the years remaining. James' formula for this was 24 - .6(age). Tomlinson is 27, so this would give him 7.8 remaining seasons. Clearly this part of the formula needs a tweak; running backs don't stick around as long as left fielders do. We'll investigate this further at some point, but as a first guess, let's change the .6 to a .7, which gives Tomlinson 5.1 more seasons.

  3. Compute the established yardage level. James used the usual three-year weighted average: three times last year's yards, plus twice the year before's yards, plus the previous year's yards, all divided by 6. For Tomlinson, that estimate would be 1450 yards, which seems reasonable.

  4. Compute the projected remaining yards. 5.1 times 1450 = 7395

  5. The probability of reaching the milestone is estimated at
    (ProjectedRemainingYards / NeedYards) - .5.
    For Tomlinson this is about 17%.

Does that feel right? Would you take five-to-one odds on Tomlinson breaking Emmitt's record? Would you best against it at one-to-five? Bill James called this method The Favorite Toy, which conveys both that it is fun to play around with and that it shouldn't be taken too seriously.

In subsequent posts I'll investigate some more mathematically elaborate --- but not necessarily more accurate --- methods of estimating these sorts of things. For now I'll leave you with the short list of runners who, according to The Favorite Toy, have a shot at Emmitt Smith's rushing record.


Runner Pct Chance
Clinton Portis 26.5
Edgerrin James 21.3
LaDainian Tomlinson 17.3
Shaun Alexander 11.3

If these estimates are to be believed, there is about a 57% chance that one of these four guys will break Emmitt's record.

14 Comments | Posted in Statgeekery

A golden age for tight ends

Posted by Doug on March 24, 2006

Maybe it's the new rules --- or rather the new enforcement of the old rules, starting in 2004 --- that is creating a glut of pass-catching tight ends. Or maybe it's just a fluke that several good ones have entered the league in the past few years. In 2005 tight ends accounted for 18.2% of receiving yardage, which is the highest figure since 1985. Below is a table indicating the percentage of receiving yards and TDs accounted for by tight ends each year since 1978.


Year PctYD PctTD Top Tight Ends
1978 17.6 22.2 Childs (869/4), Casper (852/9)
1979 16.9 20.6 Childs (846/5), Newsome (781/9)
1980 16.7 22.2 Winslow (1290/9), Casper (796/4)
1981 16.6 22.0 Winslow (1075/10), Senser (1004/8)
1982 18.6 25.6 Winslow (721/6), Newsome (633/3)
1983 18.7 24.7 Christensen (1247/12), Winslow (1172/8)
1984 20.3 24.1 Christensen (1007/7), Newsome (1001/5)
1985 20.5 23.8 Christensen (987/6), Shuler (879/7)
1986 16.5 17.7 Christensen (1153/8), Bavaro (1001/4)
1987 15.9 18.4 Bavaro (867/8), Christensen (663/2)
1988 14.1 15.4 Jackson (869/6), Shuler (805/5)
1989 13.2 16.1 Holman (736/9), Jackson (648/3)
1990 13.4 16.6 Jones (747/5), Jackson (670/6)
1991 12.9 17.6 Cook (808/3), Novacek (664/4)
1992 12.4 16.1 Novacek (630/6), Sharpe (640/2)
1993 15.7 20.3 Sharpe (995/9), Green (942/5)
1994 14.2 18.3 Coates (1174/7), Sharpe (1010/4)
1995 14.8 14.7 Coates (915/6), Sharpe (756/4)
1996 14.0 16.0 Sharpe (1062/10), Walls (713/10)
1997 16.0 21.6 Sharpe (1107/3), Dudley (787/7)
1998 15.2 20.3 Sharpe (768/10), Wycheck (768/2)
1999 14.6 20.5 Gonzalez (849/11), Walls (822/12)
2000 15.5 21.0 Gonzalez (1203/9), Sharpe (810/5)
2001 14.5 24.3 Gonzalez (917/6), Sharpe (811/2)
2002 15.4 19.7 Shockey (894/2), Heap (836/6)
2003 16.7 19.7 Gonzalez (916/10), Sharpe (770/8)
2004 17.3 25.8 Gonzalez (1258/7), Gates (964/13)
2005 18.2 23.2 Gates (1101/10), Shockey (891/7)

This kind of tight end production was commonplace back when Christensen, Winslow, and Newsome roamed the earth. Now it's back. And where are those extra receptions and yards coming from? From the running backs, it turns out.


Year PctYD PctTD Top Receiving RBs
1978 26.6 15.3 Young (704/5), Galbreath (582/2)
1979 27.7 19.7 Washington (750/3), Hofer (662/2)
1980 29.1 19.5 Harper (634/3), Brown (623/2)
1981 27.7 21.2 Andrews (735/2), Brown (694/2)
1982 25.1 18.1 Andrews (503/2), Wilder (466/1)
1983 24.0 18.6 Nelson (618/0), Andrews (609/4)
1984 21.0 15.7 Allen (758/5), Wilder (685/0)
1985 23.1 17.3 James (1027/6), Craig (1016/6)
1986 25.3 17.2 Anderson (871/8), Walker (837/2)
1987 23.9 15.5 Walker (715/1), James (593/3)
1988 23.9 17.5 Byars (705/4), Williams (651/3)
1989 21.7 17.6 Byars (721/0), Thomas (669/6)
1990 20.7 17.7 Byars (819/3), Williams (699/0)
1991 18.8 14.2 Thomas (631/5), Delpino (617/1)
1992 21.6 15.2 Harmon (914/1), White (641/1)
1993 21.1 11.9 Kirby (874/3), Harmon (671/2)
1994 21.3 13.8 Watters (719/5), Centers (647/2)
1995 18.9 11.8 Centers (962/2), Loville (662/3)
1996 19.0 13.4 Centers (766/7), Alstott (557/3)
1997 19.2 12.7 Lee (825/3), Faulk (471/1)
1998 17.7 12.5 Faulk (908/4), Lee (667/2)
1999 18.7 13.4 Faulk (1048/5), Barber (609/2)
2000 19.6 14.1 Anderson (853/2), Faulk (830/8)
2001 18.6 13.1 Faulk (765/9), Staley (626/2)
2002 19.0 14.0 Garner (941/4), Holmes (672/3)
2003 18.4 12.0 Tomlinson (725/4), Holmes (690/0)
2004 16.4 10.6 Westbrook (703/6), Davis (588/1)
2005 15.4 10.7 Westbrook (616/4), Jordan (563/2)

It appears that last season was the first time in more than 20 years that no running back caught 700 yards worth of passes.

All this fits with my half-baked theory that screen passes just do not work anymore. When I was a kid, I never saw a screen pass that didn't go for 12 yards or more. I wondered why they didn't run more of them. Now it seems that defensive linemen are just too smart. Instead of a jailbreak, they let one guy pressure the quarterback and the rest of them peel back and maul the receiver.

8 Comments | Posted in History

How valuable is Reggie Bush?

Posted by Doug on March 23, 2006

I was talking football with some friends this weekend and the following question arose: if you were starting a franchise right now, would you rather have Reggie Bush or Shaun Alexander? Assume a three-year contract that is essentially guaranteed at the same money.

With Alexander, you're getting the age-29, 30, and 31 seasons of a back who was arguably the best in the league. With Bush, you're getting the first three years in the career of a top five NFL draft pick. Historically, which of those options gets you the best production?

Between 1980 and 2003, there were 19 running backs taken among the top five overall picks in the draft. Here they are, along with their total yards in each of their first three seasons:

Player                Yr1   Yr2   Yr3
LaDainian Tomlinson  1603  2172  2370
Jamal Lewis          1660        1769
Edgerrin James       2139  2303   855
Ricky Williams       1056  1409  1756
Curtis Enis           517  1256   152
Ki-Jana Carter        433   621    29
Marshall Faulk       1804  1553  1015
Garrison Hearst       218  1313   978
Blair Thomas          824   923   489
Barry Sanders        1752  1784  1855
Alonzo Highsmith      161   597   732
Brent Fullwood        285   611  1035
Bo Jackson            690   659  1019
Eric Dickerson       2212  2244  1360
Curt Warner          1774    59  1401
George Rogers        1800   556  1213
Freeman McNeil        794   973   826
Billy Sims           1924  1888   981
Curtis Dickey        1004  1198   460

The averages are 1192, 1229, and 1068.

Now, to find some Alexander comps, I'll search for all 28-year-old top-5 running backs since 1980. Here they are, along with their total yardage for the following three years.

Player                 29    30    31
Terry Allen           896   828  1021
Barry Sanders        2358  1780
Chuck Muncie          776  1282    89
Earnest Byner        1356  1336   299
Eric Dickerson       1522   769   805
Roger Craig          1527   640   726
Curtis Martin        1456  1570  1942
William Andrews                   249
Marshall Faulk       1490  1108  1084
Priest Holmes        2287  2110  1079
Christian Okoye       828  1065   453

The averages are 1450, 1248, and 775.

On the one hand, the Alexander comparables aren't necessarily that comparable; very few of them had seasons as good as Alexander's 2005. On other hand, a great many people feel that Alexander is largely a product of his environment.

Assuming you believe that Bush is a typical top-five pick (I do) and that Alexander is roughly comparable to the eleven players listed above (maybe), the historical data does nothing but confirm that it is an interesting question. In year one, the old guys did better. In year two, they were essentially tied. In year three, the young guys did better.

So your answer to that question really depends on your discount rate. Seattle is a Super Bowl contender right now and Houston is not, so Seattle ought to value year one more than Houston does. Ultimately, if I were Seattle I wouldn't trade Alexander for the first pick. And if I were Houston I wouldn't trade the first pick for Alexander.

6 Comments | Posted in NFL Draft