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

Posted by Doug on August 4, 2008

Following is a list of the top 100 rushers in the NFL/AFL since 1950, sorted by the average number of pro bowl offensive line teammates per season.

Jim Brown             2.26
Eric Dickerson        2.12
Clem Daniels          1.93
William Andrews       1.92
Robert Smith          1.88
Emmitt Smith          1.79
Jim Taylor            1.77
Priest Holmes         1.68
Bill Brown            1.65
Shaun Alexander       1.62
Lawrence McCutcheon   1.61

Ken Willard           1.57
Jim Nance             1.55
Calvin Hill           1.54
Mark van Eeghen       1.53
Wendell Tyler         1.52
Lenny Moore           1.46
Terrell Davis         1.37
Leroy Kelly           1.34
Chuck Foreman         1.32
Mike Garrett          1.30
Rick Casares          1.29
James Brooks          1.27
Larry Csonka          1.23
Eddie George          1.18
John Henry Johnson    1.18
Duce Staley           1.14
Neal Anderson         1.12
Thurman Thomas        1.12
Emerson Boozer        1.08
Jamal Lewis           1.00
John Riggins          0.91
Barry Sanders         0.90
Rudi Johnson          0.87
Gerald Riggs          0.87
Hugh McElhenny        0.85
Roger Craig           0.84
Curtis Martin         0.83
Garrison Hearst       0.81
Wilbert Montgomery    0.79
Lydell Mitchell       0.76
Jerome Bettis         0.76
Ricky Watters         0.73
Sam Cunningham        0.72
Dick Bass             0.71
Marshall Faulk        0.70
Thomas Jones          0.69
Marcus Allen          0.68
Antowain Smith        0.66
Ahman Green           0.66
Mike Alstott          0.66
Tony Dorsett          0.65
Clinton Portis        0.64
George Rogers         0.63
Franco Harris         0.60
James Stewart         0.59
Travis Henry          0.58
Rodney Hampton        0.58
LaDainian Tomlinson   0.56
John Brockington      0.55
Mike Pruitt           0.55
Earnest Byner         0.54
Stephen Davis         0.53
Pete Johnson          0.52
Terry Allen           0.52
Deuce McAllister      0.52
Larry Jr. Brown       0.47
Warrick Dunn          0.47
Ottis Anderson        0.45
O.J. Simpson          0.45
Delvin Williams       0.44
Freeman McNeil        0.41
Ollie Matson          0.40
Herschel Walker       0.40
Don Perkins           0.39
Fred Taylor           0.38
Earl Campbell         0.38
Walter Payton         0.37
Charlie Garner        0.37
Edgerrin James        0.37
Chuck Muncie          0.34
Jamal Anderson        0.31
Sammy Winder          0.29
Kevin Mack            0.29
Marion Butts          0.29
Ricky Williams        0.28
Natrone Means         0.28
Floyd Little          0.26
Joe Morris            0.24
Chris Warren          0.21
Greg Pruitt           0.18
Tiki Barber           0.17
Billy Sims            0.15
Corey Dillon          0.13
Adrian Murrell        0.04
Dexter Bussey         0.04
Curt Warner           0.03
James Wilder          0.01
Joe Cribbs            0.00

A little bit of fine print is in order. These averages are actually weighted by the number of carries that the running back had in each season. Take Eddie George for example. His final season was only a 132-carry effort in Dallas, so the Cowboys' two offensive line pro bowlers, Flozell Adams and Larry Allen, don't count as heavily as the pro bowlers on the Titans teams on which Eddie was accumulating 350 or 400 carries. Basically, Eddie's 1.18 means that if you took a rush at random from his career, the expected number of pro bowl linemen on the field during that play would be something like 1.18.

There are a lot of things that this number fails to account for. Here's just one of them:

Consider Corey Dillon, who played with almost no pro bowl linemen at all. Or did he? For his entire career in Cincinnati he was a teammate of Willie Anderson, who made four pro bowls eventually, but didn't happen to make any of them while playing with Dillon. It's probably safe to assume that Anderson was pretty darn good during those years, even though he was not named to a pro bowl. Then Dillon moved on to the Patriots, where his line featured eventual pro bowlers Matt Light, Dan Koppen, and Logan Mankins. But again, most of their pro bowl recognition didn't come until after Dillon had left town.

To account for this (while obviously introducing a different set of problems), we'll count the average number of pro bowl linemen, with "pro bowl lineman" this time being defined as a guy who made the pro bowl at any point during his career, whether before, during, or after his time with the runner in question.

Jim Brown             4.36
Jim Nance             4.00
Ken Willard           3.95
Dick Bass             3.79
John Henry Johnson    3.77
Wendell Tyler         3.72
Emmitt Smith          3.69
Clem Daniels          3.64
Robert Smith          3.62
Lawrence McCutcheon   3.55
Calvin Hill           3.51
Mark van Eeghen       3.50
Roger Craig           3.29
Leroy Kelly           3.28
Jim Taylor            3.24
Larry Csonka          3.17
Ahman Green           3.07
Hugh McElhenny        3.05
Terrell Davis         3.02
Delvin Williams       3.00
William Andrews       2.96
Chuck Foreman         2.94
Gerald Riggs          2.91
Bill Brown            2.89
Rick Casares          2.88
Eric Dickerson        2.88
Mike Garrett          2.85
Thurman Thomas        2.81
Mike Pruitt           2.73
Lenny Moore           2.70
Floyd Little          2.63
Eddie George          2.54
Marcus Allen          2.39
Shaun Alexander       2.38
Earnest Byner         2.30
Duce Staley           2.29
Wilbert Montgomery    2.25
Emerson Boozer        2.25
Sam Cunningham        2.25
Priest Holmes         2.25
Greg Pruitt           2.23
Neal Anderson         2.22
John Riggins          2.16
Jerome Bettis         2.13
Chris Warren          2.13
Rodney Hampton        2.12
George Rogers         2.05
Joe Morris            2.04
Ricky Watters         1.99
Barry Sanders         1.97
Larry Jr. Brown       1.94
O.J. Simpson          1.93
James Brooks          1.91
Terry Allen           1.81
Jamal Anderson        1.75
Lydell Mitchell       1.72
Garrison Hearst       1.69
Tony Dorsett          1.62
Ottis Anderson        1.61
Antowain Smith        1.60
Charlie Garner        1.59
John Brockington      1.58
Edgerrin James        1.52
Ollie Matson          1.52
Herschel Walker       1.51
Corey Dillon          1.49
Marshall Faulk        1.44
Chuck Muncie          1.39
Pete Johnson          1.37
Franco Harris         1.37
Stephen Davis         1.35
Curtis Martin         1.34
Don Perkins           1.34
James Stewart         1.33
Earl Campbell         1.30
LaDainian Tomlinson   1.27
Freeman McNeil        1.27
Joe Cribbs            1.24
Thomas Jones          1.18
Kevin Mack            1.13
Dexter Bussey         1.11
Mike Alstott          1.08
Deuce McAllister      1.06
Clinton Portis        1.04
Billy Sims            1.00
Jamal Lewis           1.00
Walter Payton         1.00
Rudi Johnson          0.88
Adrian Murrell        0.87
Sammy Winder          0.85
Travis Henry          0.82
Warrick Dunn          0.74
Ricky Williams        0.72
Natrone Means         0.56
Fred Taylor           0.50
Tiki Barber           0.45
Michael Pittman       0.36
Marion Butts          0.34
Curt Warner           0.12
James Wilder          0.01

As an aside, I feel compelled to point out that it is impossible to get three sentences into a conversation about Emmitt Smith's place in history without someone claiming he benefited greatly from his offensive line. I don't dispute that, but I wonder why I have never --- not once --- heard the offensive line even mentioned in a discussion of Jim Brown.

I understand that their running styles were different, Brown's possibly less dependent on the line, that Brown dominated his peers to a greater extent than Smith did, and that he subjectively looked better while doing it. But it's not a stretch to say that Brown was playing with an entire line of pro bowlers almost every season of his career.

And in most cases, those pro bowl appearances were not (just) a product of Brown's greatness either. The majority of the pro bowl linemen Brown played with made pro bowls either before Brown came into the league or after he retired.

Pro bowl recognition did go to a somewhat higher percentage of the league's linemen in Brown's time than in Smith's, so I'm not even going to claim that this is ironclad evidence that Brown played with better lines than Smith did. And again, I'm not claiming that Smith didn't benefit from his line more than Brown did. It's the always/never split that I find curious. The line is literally always mentioned with Smith. It's literally never mentioned with Brown.

That's the end of that rant. On to some more lists...

As we know, all "pro bowl linemen" are not the same. Some are Jackie Slater and others are Tim Ruddy. The list above counts them as equals. One way to attempt to work around this is to weight each pro bowler by the number of times he made the pro bowl.

Clem Daniels         20.32
Lawrence McCutcheon  20.21
Jim Brown            19.85
Priest Holmes        19.52

Interpret as follows: if you picked a carry at random out of Priest Holmes career and counted up the total number of pro bowls made by the offensive linemen on the field during that carry, the expected value would be 19.52.

Emmitt Smith         19.44
Mike Garrett         17.85
Jim Taylor           17.57
Mark van Eeghen      16.87
Chuck Foreman        16.53
Eric Dickerson       16.36
Robert Smith         15.90
Wendell Tyler        15.87
Eddie George         15.02
Bill Brown           14.21
James Brooks         13.13
Leroy Kelly          13.09
William Andrews      12.84
Calvin Hill          12.76
Dick Bass            12.66
Larry Csonka         12.51
Sam Cunningham       12.38
Lenny Moore          12.02
Shaun Alexander      11.88
Gerald Riggs         11.45
Terrell Davis        11.37
Emerson Boozer       10.84
Hugh McElhenny       10.73
Delvin Williams      10.61
Chris Warren         10.58
Jim Nance            10.53
Jamal Lewis           9.59
Jerome Bettis         9.47
Rick Casares          9.05
Thurman Thomas        9.05
Herschel Walker       9.04
Pete Johnson          9.02
Roger Craig           8.95
Marcus Allen          8.89
Terry Allen           8.81
Ken Willard           8.60
John Henry Johnson    8.49
Barry Sanders         8.37
Neal Anderson         8.27
Thomas Jones          7.84
John Riggins          7.46
Larry Jr. Brown       7.43
Earl Campbell         7.14
Lydell Mitchell       7.10
Franco Harris         7.05
Mike Pruitt           6.96
Ricky Watters         6.96
Earnest Byner         6.68
Travis Henry          6.46
Curtis Martin         6.03
Tony Dorsett          5.66
Antowain Smith        5.58
Ottis Anderson        5.44
John Brockington      5.38
Marshall Faulk        5.34
Joe Morris            5.25
Mike Alstott          5.20
Chuck Muncie          5.17
O.J. Simpson          5.14
Duce Staley           5.08
George Rogers         5.08
Ahman Green           4.86
Ollie Matson          4.71
Wilbert Montgomery    4.70
Corey Dillon          4.62
Rodney Hampton        4.43
Clinton Portis        4.40
Edgerrin James        4.34
Freeman McNeil        4.15
Stephen Davis         4.14
Greg Pruitt           4.06
Charlie Garner        3.95
James Stewart         3.63
Garrison Hearst       3.60
Ricky Williams        3.57
Don Perkins           3.55
Rudi Johnson          3.53
Walter Payton         3.52
Warrick Dunn          3.40
Dexter Bussey         3.32
Floyd Little          2.94
Joe Cribbs            2.90
Kevin Mack            2.50
Adrian Murrell        2.43
Marion Butts          2.19
Tiki Barber           2.05
Deuce McAllister      1.84
Jamal Anderson        1.75
Fred Taylor           1.75
Sammy Winder          1.71
Natrone Means         1.69
LaDainian Tomlinson   1.55
Billy Sims            1.00
Michael Pittman       0.80
Curt Warner           0.46
James Wilder          0.07

But this is problematic as well, for a few reasons. Take Randall McDaniel, who made 12 pro bowls. This method reckons he's 12 times better than Tim Ruddy and almost twice as good as Orlando Pace, which probably isn't appropriate. But let's set that aside for now.

Anyway, in this method McDaniel will be treated as one of the greatest linemen of all time, and that is appropriate. Well, at least it's appropriate in 1994 when he was blocking for Robert Smith in Minnesota. But it almost certainly isn't in 2000, when he was 36 years old and blocking for Warrick Dunn in Tampa. This method counts his impact in 1994 as equal to his impact in 2000.

What's needed is a system that will account for:

1. How good the linemen really was.

2. Whether he was in prime or not at the time he played with each running back.

And while we're at it, it would be nice if we didn't have to pretend that non-pro-bowlers don't even exist.

Regular readers of the blog might be wondering, why not just use the approximate value method? And that makes this post an excellent opportunity to point out the inherent problems with using AV in certain situations.

In particular, remember that every team's total offensive AV is determined by how good the offense was. And that the line gets a fixed percentage of that, sometimes tweaked up or down just a little. So if we ran a database query to find the running backs whose offensive lines had the most AV, we'd essentially be doing nothing more than finding the running backs who played on the best offensive teams.

But maybe there's a way around that.

Or maybe there's not. But I gave it a shot. And I'll tell you about it tomorrow...

UPDATE: Here is a link to Part II.