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Missing: The Chargers Running Game

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 25, 2007

Last week, I wrote how LaDainian Tomlinson was off to a terrible start. He was averaging under two yards per carry, almost unheard of for an elite back over a 35-carry stretch. Well after three games, neither Tomlinson nor any of the San Diego running backs are rushing very well.

It was only last year that Charger running backs ran 461 times for 2,482 yards, an incredible 5.38 average yards per carry. Those last two numbers were the second highest of the past decade, behind only the the 2003 Packers (2,506 yards) and 1997 Lions (5.94 yards per carry). There were 343 teams in the NFL from 1996-2006, and Chargers running backs ran the ball better than almost every one of them. The Chargers also ranked 2nd in my quick "Yards over 3.0" stat. Here are the top 10 teams, with the last column representing rushing yards accumulated over three yards per attempt:


1997 det 396 2352 5.94 1164
2006 sdg 461 2482 5.38 1099
2003 gnb 473 2506 5.30 1087
2003 rav 478 2452 5.13 1018
2006 jax 430 2206 5.13 916
2005 sea 475 2326 4.90 901
2002 den 396 2052 5.18 864
2006 nyg 426 2121 4.98 843
1998 den 458 2213 4.83 839
2005 kan 468 2242 4.79 838

This year, the Chargers rank dead last in the league in rushing yards per attempt by running backs, with 77 carries for just 198 yards, an ugly 2.57 yards per rush. Only the Chiefs at 2.80 join San Diego with a team RB average under three yards per carry. Here are the worst 15 teams in YPC average after three games played, from 1997-2007. The last column shows each team's season ending YPC average by RBs:


2000 cin 48 93 1.94 4.34
2004 mia 62 132 2.13 3.44
2006 cle 48 104 2.17 3.27
1999 crd 78 191 2.45 3.12
2006 tam 50 123 2.46 3.68
2000 buf 75 185 2.47 3.56
2000 crd 61 151 2.48 3.69
2006 nyj 73 187 2.56 3.40
1997 jax 89 228 2.56 3.63
2002 nyj 39 100 2.56 4.07
2003 buf 72 185 2.57 3.94
2007 sdg 77 198 2.57 --
2000 jax 78 201 2.58 4.22
2005 nwe 74 192 2.59 3.51
1998 gnb 79 208 2.63 3.52

Ironically enough, the worst team after three games ended up looking best of the group. Corey Dillon had 82 yards on 41 carries after three weeks, but would later set the single game rushing record (since broken) and rush for 200 yards in another game later that year. This was right in the middle of Dillon's prime, when he was considered the most inconsistent RB in the NFL. That 2000 Bengals team was one of the ugliest worst passing teams in the last decade (more on this tomorrow). For the season the Bengals had a QB rating of 52.0, and in the first three games it was an ugly 39.8. That team was such an outlier, I'm not sure they provide a great comparison to any current team, let alone one with a Pro Bowl QB.

The other two teams to top 4.00 -- the '02 Jets and '00 Jaguars -- were, like the 2000 Bengals and the 2007 Chargers, carried by great RBs. The '02 Jets were a weird team, because they were outscored by 64 points in games 2 and 3 with Vinny Testaverde at QB, and became a different team after the emergence of Chad Pennington. The '00 Jags? Fred Taylor would rank 6th in the league in rushing yards and average 4.8 YPC, despite playing only 13 games. Any guesses as to which three games he missed?

The rest of the list is filled with teams that never really fixed things in the running game. I don't think the '07 Chargers are anything like the '02 Jets or '00 Jaguars, because of the significant change in personnel, but they could conceivably match what the 1997 Bengals did. Certainly, though, most teams in the Chargers' situation have failed to become even an average rushing team.

Before we go, let's just take a second and recognize how badly the Chargers RBs have regressed this year. Of the 343 teams from 1996-2006, none of them have declined as much in performance after three games like the 2007 Chargers. Below is a table that shows each team's Year N yards per carry average by RBs, that team's Year N+1 yards per carry average by RBs after three games, and the difference:


2006 sdg 5.38 2.57 2.81
1999 cin 4.57 1.94 2.63
2001 nyj 4.77 2.56 2.20
1996 atl 4.52 2.65 1.87
2004 nwe 4.43 2.59 1.83
2004 nyj 4.72 2.89 1.82
2002 buf 4.35 2.57 1.78
2005 tam 4.21 2.46 1.75
1997 gnb 4.33 2.63 1.69
2005 cle 3.84 2.17 1.68
2006 sfo 4.99 3.39 1.60
2005 sea 4.90 3.31 1.58
2006 jax 5.13 3.55 1.58
2004 rav 4.33 2.77 1.57
2001 nyg 4.39 2.83 1.56
2006 kan 4.34 2.80 1.54
2001 pit 4.57 3.06 1.51
1999 jax 4.08 2.58 1.50
2003 mia 3.61 2.13 1.48
2005 chi 4.39 2.95 1.44

The difference between the Chargers and even the fourth biggest decliner is huge. Now obviously the Chargers had a high perch to fall from, but this steep decline is unprecedented in the past eleven years, and maybe much longer. As we've seen, the 2000 Bengals and 2002 Jets did turn it around, but I'm not sure if we can explain what's going on in San Diego. The 2000 Bengals started off with rookie (and soon to be bust) Akili Smith at QB, after Jeff Blake had a good season in 1999. The 2002 Jets ran Curtis Martin just 24 times in the first three games; the 2007 Chargers have run LT 57 times already. This Chargers team returns all five offensive lineman and their superstar TE, along with two great RBs. And while it's easy to blame Norv Turner, he's always coached successful running games. It's hard to see what's going on in San Diego, but we're seeing a decline of absolutely historic proportions so far. It's as if Peyton Manning started playing like Andrew Walter. As I said last week, I'll never be surprised to watch Tomlinson run for 150 yards on any Sunday, but right now, the 2007 Chargers RBs and offensive lineman have looked pitiful.

On the other side, let's give some credit to the 2007 Cleveland Browns, who have the third largest increase using the same criteria:


1998 car 3.64 6.57 -2.94
2002 rav 4.25 6.75 -2.50
2006 cle 3.27 5.71 -2.44
1997 sfo 4.02 6.29 -2.28
1996 min 3.74 5.87 -2.13
2000 pit 4.03 6.00 -1.97
2001 mia 3.38 5.33 -1.95
2001 rai 3.61 5.51 -1.90
1999 nyg 3.22 5.10 -1.88
2003 oti 3.37 5.07 -1.70
2002 chi 3.42 5.05 -1.63
2001 crd 3.51 5.14 -1.63
2002 car 3.59 5.20 -1.61
1996 cin 3.68 5.08 -1.39
1996 tam 3.27 4.65 -1.38
1997 sdg 3.59 4.97 -1.38
1996 chi 3.78 5.10 -1.32
1999 phi 3.92 5.23 -1.31
2001 min 3.67 4.97 -1.31
1997 crd 3.19 4.48 -1.28

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 25th, 2007 at 12:10 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.