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Josh Cribbs, Superstar, Part 2

Posted by Chase Stuart on June 11, 2008

On Monday and Tuesday, I looked at some of the best seasons by returners in league history. As noted yesterday, Josh Cribbs' 2007 season was truly remarkable. He added 486 more adjusted yards than the league average kickoff returner would have produced, and another 136 adjusted yards above what the league average punt returner would have compiled with the same number of returns. Those 622 adjusted yards over average was the single highest total by any one player since the merger.

			year    KR VAL	PR VAL	RET VAL
Josh Cribbs		2007	486	136	622
Michael Lewis		2002	297	211	508
Dante Hall		2003	266	211	477
Mike Nelms		1981	347	123	470
Brian Mitchell		1994	242	181	423
Mel J. Gray		1991	247	175	422
Billy Johnson		1977	118	283	401
Mel J. Gray		1994	347	 42	389
Billy Johnson		1975	 76	312	388
MarTay Jenkins		2000	392    -  9	383
Terrence McGee		2005	373	  0	373
Derrick Mason		2000	208	158	366
Tyrone Hughes		1993	178	182	360
Ron J. Brown		1985	359	  0	359
Eddie Brown		1976	108	249	357
Brian Mitchell		2002	222	134	356
Eddie Drummond		2004	220	129	348
Raymond Clayborn	1977	340	  0	340
Ron Smith		1973	155	173	328
Jerome Mathis		2005	356    - 30	325
Jerry Azumah		2003	325	  0	325
Glyn Milburn		1995	260	 61	321
Brian Mitchell		1995	227	 89	316
Cecil Turner		1970	322    -  9	314
Tim Brown		1988	288	 25	313

When comparing returners to returners, using adjusted yards (adjusted meaning simply giving an additional ten yards for every TD score) compared to league average works well as a measure of accomplishment and value. But what if we want to compare returners to QBs? Well, that's a little more complicated.

For example, here's a list of the top ten QBs in yards over average last year, using adjusted yards per attempt compared to the league average.

1560	Tom Brady
 703	Peyton Manning
 669	Tony Romo
 650	David Garrard
 626	Brett Favre
 612	Ben Roethlisberger
 474	Jeff Garcia
 428	Donovan McNabb
 413	Matt Hasselbeck
 331	Jay Cutler

Guys like Derek Anderson, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer don't even make this list. And while I think this does a nice job of measuring the value added by each QB intraposition, it doesn't do a good job of showing the relative value of Brett Favre compared to Josh Cribbs. It doesn't do a good job for lots of reasons, but the simplest reason is because it basically says they were equally valuable last year.

The flaw in the math is that an average QB is actually pretty valuable. An average kickoff returner isn't really valuable at all. Why? Well, anyone can find a KR that can come close to the league average; there aren't league average QBs just hanging around.

So how do we compare the two? The league average adjusted yards per pass ratio last year for quarterbacks was 5.86. More importantly, 85% of the passes thrown last year were by QBs who averaged at least 4.75 AY/A. I feel pretty comfortable using that as a replacement level number. That's in between what Vince Young and Matt Moore averaged. I may be wrong, but I think almost every team can find a QB to average at least 4.75 AY/A, so if you're not averaging that, you really have almost no value. Only four teams had their QBs average under that -- Oakland, Carolina, St. Louis and San Francisco. In other words, I feel pretty comfortable with Miami's team QBs (4.89 AY/A) getting negligible value in this system.

Conversely, 85% of all kickoff returns last year were by kickoff returners who averaged at least 20.00 AY/KR, which is only 2.77 adjusted yards below league average. Additionally, about 85% of all punt returns were by players who averaged at least 6.15 adjusted yards per punt return, which was 3.14 adjusted yards below average.

What's that all mean? If you take 20.00 AY/KR and 6.15 AY/PR to be "replacement level", that means Josh Cribbs added 649 adjusted kickoff return yards above replacement and 231 adjusted punt return yards above replacement. So he brought in about 880 return yards above replacement level last year.

How does that compare to say, the adjusted yards over replacement level added by the top QBs?

2067	Tom Brady
1155	Peyton Manning
1126	Tony Romo
1095	Brett Favre
967	Ben Roethlisberger
906	Matt Hasselbeck
935	David Garrard
843	Donovan McNabb
741	Jay Cutler
761	Jeff Garcia
645	Drew Brees
675	Kurt Warner
627	Carson Palmer
597	Derek Anderson
553	Jon Kitna

Cribbs ranks ahead of all but seven QBs. Is it actually possible that Cribbs was more valuable to the Browns than Derek Anderson? My gut reaction, along with my second, third and fourth thoughts, tell me the answer is 'no'. But consider this -- our guts would also tell us that say, Brodie Croyle and Josh Cribbs would be way worse than Derek Anderson and a mediocre punt and kickoff returner, right?

Well, maybe not. Derek Anderson had 529 pass attempts last year, and totaled 3,787 yards, 29 TD and 19 INT. That's an average of 6.11 AY/A, or 3,222 adjusted yards. If we give our mediocre kickoff returner (let's call him Dominic Rhodes) 59 KO returns, we'd expect 1,180 adjusted yards. If we give our mediocre punt returner (let's call him Adam Jennings) 30 punt returns, we'd expect 186 adjusted yards. Therefore, our KR, PR and QB will give us 4,588 yards.

Now, let's look at Brodie Croyle and Josh Cribbs. We know Cribbs gave us 1829 adjusted yards on kickoff returns, and 415 adjusted yards on punt returns. If we give Brodie Croyle 529 pass attempts -- that's what Derek Anderson had last year -- then Croyle would end up with roughly 2,898 passing yards, 14.2 TDs and 14.2 INTs. Those numbers, of course, aren't very good. That's only 2,401 adjusted yards.

But Cribbs (the KR), Cribbs (the PR) and Croyle give us 4,759 adjusted yards on the season. And that's almost 200 more yards than Derek Anderson, Dom Rhodes and Adam Jennings gave us. Looking at it in that light, I can sort of begin to see how Cribbs was better, or more precisely, more valuable to the Browns than Derek Anderson. And that's not really a slight on Anderson -- Cribbs was more valuable than Donovan McNabb, Jay Cutler, Jeff Garcia and Drew Brees, too.

As mind boggling as that might seem, keep two things in mind. One, don't use Cribbs as a proxy for "the best kick returner in the league." Because this wouldn't be true, well, ever. Cribbs had by far, the single greatest season by a returner since the merger. So you might want to throw what you normally think of great returners out the window. Two, we should understand that Cribbs' season was an anomaly, and he had some luck, and he's obviously not "that" good. But it did happen and he was valuable. Tom Brady's not going to throw for 50 TD and 9 INT ever again, but when valuing his season, we need to ignore the anomalous nature of it.

This got pretty lengthy, so I'm going to table any discussions of kickoff returners and correlation coefficients for another day. There should be more than enough to chew on, here. If you're a Chiefs fan, it's easy to think that Kansas City would have been a whole lot better if they had Jay Cutler or Donovan McNabb instead of what they actually had at QB last year. But KC might have been better off if they simply had the Cleveland special teams unit instead.