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Willis McGahee vs. New York Jets

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 27, 2006

My brother and I talk (a lot) before every Jets game, but the conversation this weekend was much less agreeable than normal. Here's the basic rundown.

Him: Well, the Jets have to shut down McGahee. He just kills the Jets every time they face him.
Me: Well...I'm not so sure I'd go that far. I'd only be especially concerned about McGahee in light of him killing the Jets in recent games, if a player's past performance against team X is a greater predictor of his future performance against team X, than his past performance against the rest of the league. And I don't believe that to be the case.

Him: (Rolling his eyes, because I talk like this too often). Listen. McGahee has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the last three games against the Jets. I don't care what he does against the rest of the league, he kills the Jets. He owns the Jets, so they have to put forth all their effort to stop him.
Me: Three is a pretty small sample size, you know. McGahee hasn't been very good against the rest of the league, he's only averaging 3.6 YPC, and he wasn't very good last year or this year. Let's not make him into some unstoppable back.

Him: It's irrelevant what he does against everyone else. For whatever reason, he owns the Jets. They need to stop him.
Me: You have to remember, that splits (do) happen by chance. If he's not very good against the rest of the league normally, I'm not going to be overly concerned about a sample size of three games. (Note: I didn't actually provide a link during our conversation.)

Him: Well in those three games he obliterated the Jets, so I think that's cause for concern.
Me: I just don't think he's that good. I wouldn't sweat it. Do you have any explanation for why he's done so well against the Jets? Do you have an explanation for why he's done relatively poorly against the rest of the NFL?

Him: I'm not breaking down the game tape, but it's enough for me to know that he crushes the Jets, we watch it every time. I don't watch the other teams, so I don't know why he doesn't do as well against them. What's your explanation?

Me: He's been fortuitous to have some big games against the Jets. It happens.
Him: Are you saying he's been lucky to dominate the Jets?

Me: I just think he's been fortuitous.
Him: Ok, let's say he rushes for over 100 yards this week, and then again when the Jets and Bills play. Now he's done it five straight times. Is he "fortuitous" then too?

Me: It depends. How many rushing yards does he have this year?
Him: He rushes for 1130 yards, but 230 of them come against the Jets.

Me: Then yes, I'd say he's fortuitous.
Him: Ok, that's all I needed to hear. You're nuts.

Outside of letting you know that my whole family is crazy, I bring this up to highlight a classic debate between objective and subjective analysis. And of course, we know what happened: McGahee set a career high rushing for 150 yards this weekend. In my brother's mind he feels vindicated; I'm far from ready to admit I was wrong. I'd argue that McGahee had only a 25% chance or so of having a big day, and the fact that he did said unlikely event doesn't change much in my eyes. During our dinner conversation I didn't have the chance to conduct the proper statistical analysis, but now I do.

So here's what I did. From 1996-2005, a running back rushed for over 100 yards against the same opponent in three consecutive games on sixty-nine different occasions. Below is the complete list, with the player's name along with the opponent he rushed against, and the year and week that he did it for the third time. For some players, like Shaun Alexander against the Rams, you'll see a player and team combination listed multiple times. Alexander broke the century mark in five straight games against the St. Louis, and is listed three times because he had a trio of three straight 100-yard rushing games.

Player Year Wk Opp
Shaun Alexander 2005 9 crd
Shaun Alexander 2004 10 ram
Shaun Alexander 2005 5 ram
Shaun Alexander 2005 10 ram
Shaun Alexander 2005 14 sfo
Tiki Barber 2004 12 phi
Tiki Barber 2005 11 phi
Tiki Barber 2005 14 phi
Michael Bennett 2002 14 gnb
Jerome Bettis 1997 8 cin
Jerome Bettis 1997 12 cin
Jerome Bettis 2001 9 cle
Jerome Bettis 1998 8 kan
Jerome Bettis 1997 6 rav
Jerome Bettis 1997 11 rav
Jerome Bettis 2004 12 was
Domanick Davis 2005 14 oti
Stephen Davis 2000 17 crd
Stephen Davis 2001 13 crd
Stephen Davis 2001 17 crd
Stephen Davis 2002 1 crd
Terrell Davis 1998 9 cin
Terrell Davis 1998 11 kan
Terrell Davis 1997 2 sea
Terrell Davis 1997 10 sea
Terrell Davis 1998 6 sea
Terrell Davis 1998 17 sea
Terrell Davis 2001 13 sea
Marshall Faulk 2003 13 min
Eddie George 2000 16 cle
Ahman Green 2001 11 det
Priest Holmes 2002 15 den
Priest Holmes 2002 12 sea
Edgerrin James 2003 12 buf
Edgerrin James 2005 10 htx
Edgerrin James 2001 7 kan
Edgerrin James 2000 16 mia
Edgerrin James 2002 2 mia
Rudi Johnson 2005 14 cle
Thomas Jones 2004 17 gnb
Fred Lane 1998 9 nor
Jamal Lewis 2002 10 cin
Jamal Lewis 2002 13 cin
Jamal Lewis 2003 7 cin
Jamal Lewis 2003 14 cin
Jamal Lewis 2004 3 cin
Jamal Lewis 2002 16 cle
Jamal Lewis 2003 2 cle
Jamal Lewis 2003 16 cle
Curtis Martin 1999 6 clt
Deuce McAllister 2004 12 atl
Deuce McAllister 2004 16 atl
Deuce McAllister 2003 8 car
Willis McGahee 2005 17 nyj
Clinton Portis 2005 1 chi
Clinton Portis 2003 14 kan
Clinton Portis 2003 2 sdg
Clinton Portis 2003 11 sdg
Barry Sanders 1997 14 chi
Barry Sanders 1997 12 min
Barry Sanders 1997 16 min
Emmitt Smith 1998 16 phi
Emmitt Smith 1999 5 phi
Emmitt Smith 2001 12 was
Emmitt Smith 2002 13 was
Robert Smith 2000 12 car
Fred Taylor 2002 14 cle
LaDainian Tomlinson 2004 15 cle
Ricky Williams 2003 16 buf

During those trio of games, the runners averaged 132 rushing yards per game. Of those 69 RBs, 51 played a fourth consecutive game during this time-span (from 1996-2005). How did those runners do? Drum roll...

Twenty-five of the 51 rushed for over 100 yards. The average rushing output was 96.5 rushing yards.

At first glance, I wasn't sure what to make of this. On one hand I think it might support my brother's contention: most players don't rush for over 100 yards most weeks, so for half the RBs to do so is pretty strong evidence that there is some truth to a player having his way with a particular team. On the other hand, half the time the RB didn't hit the century mark, and the average and median production levels were also in the two digits.

I finally figured out what (I think) is the correct way to tell if this is "good" or "bad" production from our RBs. For all 51 RBs, I then looked at how many rushing yards per game they averaged in the year they played that fourth consecutive game. The 51 RBs averaged 91.2 rushing yards per game in that year. To sum, of the 51 RBs that have rushed for over 100 yards against the same team in three consecutive games, they averaged 130.0 yards per game during those weeks. When they played that opponent a fourth time, the RBs averaged 96.5 YPG, and during that season the RBs averaged 91.2 YPG. Those RBs also hit the 100 yard mark in 43% of the games they played that season, versus breaking triple digits in 49% of the games against that particular opponent.

So it looks like you might expect a RB that has dominated a team in the past to average about five more yards per game against that particular opponent than against the rest of the league. I'm not sure if this means my brother won or I won, although in the end we're both just happy the Jets won.

In 2006, a few of those streaks were on the line.

  • Shaun Alexander rushed for 89 yards against the Cardinals in the Seahawks opener, a Seattle win.
  • Tiki Barber rushed for over 100 yards against the Eagles in five straight games, but the Birds shut Barber down to the tune of only 51 rushing yards in Philadelphia's home opener, in a Giants win.
  • Rudi Johnson continued his dominance against the Browns in the Bengals' home opener, by rushing for 145 yards and leading Cincinnati to victory.
  • Willis McGahee rushed for 150 yards against the Jets in the Bills' home opener, but the Jets held on to win, 28-20.

One stat you might not have caught this week: the Jets became the first team in NFL history to win a road game while allowing both a 300 yard passer and a 150 yard rusher. (As you might remember, New York needed to make some history the last time the Jets won in Buffalo, when Chad Morton became the first player to ever return a kickoff for a touchdown in regulation and then in overtime.) You might be wondering how that happened, and while I'm sure you'll hear the typical poetic reasoning (the Jets are well-coached, never give up, play with heart, etc.), here's the real formula:

  • Return a fumble for a TD, force two other turnovers and commit none
  • Score 21 points on three red-zone trips
  • Hold the opponent to 13 points on four red-zone trips