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What great running back was most helped by his offensive line? Part III

Posted by Chase Stuart on August 3, 2009

One year ago, Doug wrote Part I and Part II of this series. Doug wanted to measure the quality of the five starting offensive linemen each running back ran behind for each season of his career. He then used a weighted-average for each runner (based on his number of carries) in each season to derive a career rating. Essentially, he figured out (for all post-1950 runners) the quality of the five linemen each RB played behind during the average carry of his career.

But Doug's post was written before my most dominant RB ever series, and we can use that formula to make a small but key tweak. Instead of measuring the linemen for each carry a runner has, we can do it for each yard of value the running back earned. We don't really care what type of line O.J. Simpson ran behind in San Franciso, where he accumulated 12% of his career carries. We think O.J. is great because of what he did in Buffalo -- and really, because of what he did in two particular seasons in Buffalo. Therefore, we want to focus on the quality of his lines in '73 and '75; in those two seasons he earned 61% of his career value. It turns out he played behind a very good line in '75 but a bad one in '73. These are, of course, simply estimated values of offensive line ability, but at this point, that is the best we can do.

To take another example, Walter Payton's best season was 1977, and he dominated behind an absolutely dreadful line. But if you weigh each carry of a runner's career qually, you will underrated Payton because he had a ton of carries in the mid-80s playing with star linemen like Jimbo Covert and Jay Hilgenberg. We want to match up the quality of the linemen with the quality of the running back years.

To grade the linemen, I'll be using the exact same formula as used in the Great OL playing together post. To grade the running back seasons, I'll be using adjusted yards over replacement value, excluding the post-season. Only seasons from 1950 onward are included, which only impacts Steve Van Buren and Cliff Battles, among running backs we're going to be concerned with. Another thing to note is that any lineman who played (or will play) good seasons either before 1950 or after 2008 will be underrated in my system, which means any RB who played with those OL will be overrated in this system (if we think that RBs who put up good numbers with bad lines are better than RBs who put up good numbers with good lines). So comparison Tomlinson to Payton might not be a fair comparison just yet. The final thing to keep in mind is that the current Approximate Value system carries a steep (and probably disproportionate) penalty to all AFL players, including linemen. To the extent that AV is too harsh on AFL linemen, AFL RBs will be overrated, as they will have appeared to have done more with less. Here's the list, sorted by career running back value over replacement:

Rvalue	OL 	Name
7971	54.9	Jim Brown
7445	44.1	Marshall Faulk
7312	36.9	Barry Sanders
7126	31.2	Walter Payton
7105	30.2	LaDainian Tomlinson
7057	45.4	Emmitt Smith
5457	40.7	Eric Dickerson
5203	35.0	Curtis Martin
5083	43.8	Thurman Thomas
5029	43.7	Edgerrin James
4998	37.3	O.J. Simpson
4906	33.8	Tiki Barber
4491	48.2	Priest Holmes
4221	41.4	Shaun Alexander
4198	34.4	Earl Campbell
4155	55.3	Jim Taylor
4127	37.1	Ricky Watters
4120	35.1	Marcus Allen
3964	44.8	Terrell Davis
3768	37.2	Clinton Portis
3666	46.0	Lydell Mitchell
3650	37.7	Jerome Bettis
3644	43.4	Tony Dorsett
3632	34.8	Fred Taylor
3611	38.6	Ahman Green
3586	36.4	Steve Van Buren
3542	31.9	Ottis Anderson
3443	50.4	Chuck Foreman
3421	44.8	Leroy Kelly
3406	36.5	Brian Westbrook
3391	39.5	Eddie George
3293	41.2	William Andrews
3261	47.8	Roger Craig
3235	36.9	Herschel Walker
3143	38.6	John Riggins
3064	39.7	Franco Harris
3051	39.6	Corey Dillon
2985	36.5	Wilbert Montgomery
2983	33.7	Jamal Lewis
2787	36.8	Clem Daniels
2781	39.9	Larry Brown
2731	32.8	Ricky Williams
2723	39.3	Larry Johnson
2669	31.7	Gale Sayers
2668	33.6	Stephen Davis
2624	23.4	Abner Haynes
2609	31.5	Billy Sims
2608	38.1	Gerald Riggs
2498	38.1	Joe Perry
2466	35.9	Steven Jackson
2465	48.5	Lenny Moore
2451	35.8	Curt Warner
2399	41.4	Lawrence McCutcheon
2345	38.4	Charlie Garner
2328	31.7	Chris Warren
2318	41.9	Neal Anderson
2315	36.3	Terry Allen
2295	45.1	Robert Smith
2289	32.4	Floyd Little
2275	36.1	Rodney Hampton
2235	36.5	George Rogers
2221	30.4	Warrick Dunn
2191	37.9	Ron A. Johnson
2118	31.8	Deuce McAllister
2074	52.8	Larry Csonka
2025	46.2	James Brooks
1986	25.0	James Wilder
1972	38.0	Joe Morris
1949	42.4	Frank Gifford
1933	36.5	Garrison Hearst
1888	35.3	Timmy Brown
1861	33.5	Thomas Jones
1845	29.1	Paul Lowe
1836	39.6	Bill Brown
1813	42.2	Mike Pruitt
1811	39.4	Rudi Johnson
1805	34.7	Jamal Anderson
1802	 --	Cliff Battles
1783	41.4	Freeman McNeil
1735	55.9	Calvin Hill
1723	44.0	Earnest Byner
1705	27.7	Cookie Gilchrist
1700	25.2	Frank Gore
1691	33.0	Don Perkins
1678	51.6	Mark van Eeghen
1667	38.1	Delvin Williams
1660	39.1	Greg Bell
1647	39.5	Ted Brown
1632	33.8	Jim Nance
1608	41.2	J.D. Smith
1604	36.2	Dan Towler
1575	44.4	Pete Johnson
1572	35.9	John Brockington
1555	34.3	Otis Armstrong
1552	33.8	Duce Staley
1551	30.6	John L. Williams
1541	35.8	Adrian Peterson
1527	37.3	Willie Parker
1515	42.8	Wendell Tyler
1504	45.9	Rick Casares

Same 100 running backs, listed in order of best offensive lines:

Rvalue	OL 	Name
1735	55.9	Calvin Hill
4155	55.3	Jim Taylor
7971	54.9	Jim Brown
2074	52.8	Larry Csonka
1678	51.6	Mark van Eeghen
3443	50.4	Chuck Foreman
2465	48.5	Lenny Moore
4491	48.2	Priest Holmes
3261	47.8	Roger Craig
2025	46.2	James Brooks
3666	46.0	Lydell Mitchell
1504	45.9	Rick Casares
7057	45.4	Emmitt Smith
2295	45.1	Robert Smith
3964	44.8	Terrell Davis
3421	44.8	Leroy Kelly
1575	44.4	Pete Johnson
7445	44.1	Marshall Faulk
1723	44.0	Earnest Byner
5083	43.8	Thurman Thomas
5029	43.7	Edgerrin James
3644	43.4	Tony Dorsett
1515	42.8	Wendell Tyler
1949	42.4	Frank Gifford
1813	42.2	Mike Pruitt
2318	41.9	Neal Anderson
4221	41.4	Shaun Alexander
2399	41.4	Lawrence McCutcheon
1783	41.4	Freeman McNeil
1608	41.2	J.D. Smith
3293	41.2	William Andrews
5457	40.7	Eric Dickerson
2781	39.9	Larry Brown
3064	39.7	Franco Harris
3051	39.6	Corey Dillon
1836	39.6	Bill Brown
3391	39.5	Eddie George
1647	39.5	Ted Brown
1811	39.4	Rudi Johnson
2723	39.3	Larry Johnson
1660	39.1	Greg Bell
3143	38.6	John Riggins
3611	38.6	Ahman Green
2345	38.4	Charlie Garner
2498	38.1	Joe Perry
1667	38.1	Delvin Williams
2608	38.1	Gerald Riggs
1972	38.0	Joe Morris
2191	37.9	Ron A. Johnson
3650	37.7	Jerome Bettis
1527	37.3	Willie Parker
4998	37.3	O.J. Simpson
3768	37.2	Clinton Portis
4127	37.1	Ricky Watters
7312	36.9	Barry Sanders
3235	36.9	Herschel Walker
2787	36.8	Clem Daniels
2985	36.5	Wilbert Montgomery
2235	36.5	George Rogers
1933	36.5	Garrison Hearst
3406	36.5	Brian Westbrook
3586	36.4	Steve Van Buren
2315	36.3	Terry Allen
1604	36.2	Dan Towler
2275	36.1	Rodney Hampton
2466	35.9	Steven Jackson
1572	35.9	John Brockington
1541	35.8	Adrian Peterson
2451	35.8	Curt Warner
1888	35.3	Timmy Brown
4120	35.1	Marcus Allen
5203	35.0	Curtis Martin
3632	34.8	Fred Taylor
1805	34.7	Jamal Anderson
4198	34.4	Earl Campbell
1555	34.3	Otis Armstrong
1552	33.8	Duce Staley
4906	33.8	Tiki Barber
1632	33.8	Jim Nance
2983	33.7	Jamal Lewis
2668	33.6	Stephen Davis
1861	33.5	Thomas Jones
1691	33.0	Don Perkins
2731	32.8	Ricky Williams
2289	32.4	Floyd Little
3542	31.9	Ottis Anderson
2118	31.8	Deuce McAllister
2669	31.7	Gale Sayers
2328	31.7	Chris Warren
2609	31.5	Billy Sims
7126	31.2	Walter Payton
1551	30.6	John L. Williams
2221	30.4	Warrick Dunn
7105	30.2	LaDainian Tomlinson
1845	29.1	Paul Lowe
1705	27.7	Cookie Gilchrist
1700	25.2	Frank Gore
1986	25.0	James Wilder
2624	23.4	Abner Haynes
1802	--	Cliff Battles

I'm sure you guys have a bunch of things you'll want to comment on, but I'll just clean up a point I made in my 90% of the All-decade offense of the '00s post:

That leaves James, Barber and Alexander, who will continue this battle when Canton only takes one or two of them. I’m partial to Barber because I felt he produced with the least around him — he didn’t have Manning/Glenn/Saturday, and he didn’t have Hasselbeck/Jones/Hutchinson.

Even ignoring the QB difference, Barber was at a significant disadvantage relative to James and Alexander. I ranked James, Alexander and Barber at #16, 17 and 18 in running back dominance and at #10, #14 and #12 in value over replacement. In other words, they're very close together from a statistical point of view. I think Barber has a better HOF argument to make over those two based on putting up roughly similar numbers despite playing behind much weaker lines. As always, your mileage my vary.

I'll close with one other thought before letting you guys chime in. You may notice that Jim Brown and Jim Taylor both played behind some excellent offensive lines. The careers of the two star NFL runners of the '60s are even more interesting than meets the eye; check back tomorrow to see what Jason has to say about them.

This entry was posted on Monday, August 3rd, 2009 at 7:31 am and is filed under Approximate Value, History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.