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A different look at 2009 running back performance

Posted by Chase Stuart on August 20, 2010

Ronnie Brown rushed 20 times for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Bills last October; that sounds like a great game, until you realize that there were five better rushing performances by individuals against Buffalo in 2009. Below are the stat lines for all running backs who had at least 10 carries against the Bills last year:

RB Rsh Ryd RTD GRADE Rank
Thomas Jones 22 210 1 176 1
Pierre Thomas 14 126 2 118 2
Jamaal Charles 20 143 1 113 3
Ryan Moats 23 126 3 110 4
Chris Johnson 26 132 2 100 5
Ronnie Brown 20 115 2 95 6
Ricky Williams 27 115 1 71 7
Leon Washington 15 99 0 69 8
DeAngelo Williams 16 89 1 67 9
Thomas Jones 23 109 0 63 10
Ricky Williams 16 85 1 63 11
Jamal Lewis 31 117 0 55 12
Laurence Maroney 23 81 1 45 13
Jason Snelling 15 68 0 38 14
Reggie Bush 13 64 0 38 15
Shonn Greene 11 59 0 37 16
Jerious Norwood 13 52 0 26 18
Maurice Jones-Drew 25 66 1 26 19
Mike Hart 10 28 1 18 21
Laurence Maroney 10 32 0 12 27

Most of the chart is self-explanatory; allow me to explain the Grade column, by which the table is sorted. To rank running back performance against a team, I wanted to combine rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns into one metric. The simple, back-of-the-envelope formula I used was rushing yards over two yards per carry plus ten yards for each touchdown. So 30 carries for 100 yards would get you a grade of 40; if you scored two touchdowns, that would bump the grade up to 60. Similarly, a grade of 60 could be earned by rushing 15 times for 80 yards and one score. I'm not arguing that this is a perfect measure of running back performance, but it was relatively simple and should provide reasonable results in most cases -- i.e., Jones had the best performance against the Bills last year.


While the Bills were horrible against the run, the Bengals shut down just about every running back they faced. Adrian Peterson's 26-97-2 stat line against Cincinnati got a grade of 65, the best performance against them last season. The Bengals were the only team last year to not allow any running back to get at least 70 adjusted yards over 2.0 yards per carry.

Once we grade each running back performance, it's easy to see how they ranked against that opponent relative to all other running backs. For example, Chris Johnson had the best game among all running backs last season against four different teams: the Jaguars (24-228-2), Texans (16-197-2), Cardinals (18-154-1) and 49ers (25-135-2). The table below shows how many times each running back had the best, 2nd best, 3rd best, ... and 10th best games against a team last season. The final column is a sum of those ranks, where each RB gets 10 points for a 1st place finish, 9 points for a 2nd place finish, and so on.

RB G 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 sum
Chris Johnson 16 4 2 2 0 2 1 1 1 2 0 102
Adrian Peterson 16 3 1 1 1 2 0 0 2 1 0 74
Ray Rice 16 3 0 2 0 0 0 4 1 2 0 69
Steven Jackson 15 0 2 2 0 2 3 1 0 1 1 68
DeAngelo Williams 13 3 0 1 2 2 0 0 0 1 0 66
Frank Gore 14 2 1 1 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 63
Cedric Benson 13 2 2 2 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 62
Jonathan Stewart 16 2 1 1 1 1 0 2 0 0 0 58
Maurice Jones-Drew 16 2 2 0 0 0 2 1 0 1 2 56
Thomas Jones 16 1 0 0 2 2 1 1 2 0 2 53
Jamaal Charles 15 1 1 3 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 48
Ryan Grant 16 0 3 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 45
Michael Turner 11 1 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 44
Rashard Mendenhall 15 1 1 0 2 0 1 0 1 1 1 44
Ricky Williams 16 1 0 0 2 0 1 2 1 1 0 42
Jerome Harrison 13 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 36
Cadillac Williams 16 1 0 0 0 2 0 3 0 0 1 35
Fred Jackson 16 1 1 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 2 33
Pierre Thomas 13 0 2 1 0 0 0 0 2 0 1 33
Kevin Smith 13 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 2 0 1 31
Knowshon Moreno 16 0 0 0 0 2 1 2 2 0 0 31
Justin Forsett 15 1 0 0 0 3 0 0 0 1 0 30
Willis McGahee 15 1 0 0 2 0 0 1 0 0 0 28
Chris Wells 16 0 0 0 2 0 1 1 1 0 2 28
Marion Barber 15 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 2 0 27
Laurence Maroney 15 0 1 0 1 0 0 2 1 0 0 27
Felix Jones 14 0 0 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 26
Joseph Addai 15 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 1 1 1 25
Ahmad Bradshaw 15 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 2 1 25
Matt Forte 16 0 0 0 1 0 1 1 1 2 0 23
Ronnie Brown 9 0 1 0 0 0 2 0 0 1 1 22
LeSean McCoy 16 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 2 0 1 22

By just about any metric you can think of, Chris Johnson was the best running back in the NFL last season. It's no surprise that he tops the above list. One guy that stands out to me is Cedric Benson, who put up one of the three biggest performances against nearly half of the teams he faced in 2009. Another is DeAngelo Williams, who had top-five games against eight teams in only 13 games last season. Some have expressed doubts about Jamaal Charles since he was putting up huge numbers against bad defenses last season. But even though Charles was pitted against some weak defenses, he was still running through them like almost no other running back did. In the last four weeks of the season, he put up the #1 game against the Broncos, the #2 rushing performance against the Browns and the third best agame against the Bengals and Bills. Michael Turner suffered a high ankle sprain in Atlanta's 9th game of the season, and his end of the year numbers were less than impressive. But in those first nine weeks, he put up one of the best four performances by any running back against five opponents; that's one of the reasons I'm high on his fantasy football prospects this season.

I'll close with a list of the top rushing performances, measured by GRADE, against each defense last season:

Defense RB Rsh Ryd RTD Grade
ARI Chris Johnson 18 154 1 128
ATL Jonathan Stewart 11 82 2 80
BAL Adrian Peterson 22 143 0 99
BUF Thomas Jones 22 210 1 176
CAR Ricky Williams 22 119 2 95
CHI Cedric Benson 37 189 1 125
CIN Adrian Peterson 26 97 2 65
CLE Adrian Peterson 25 180 3 160
DAL Cadillac Williams 13 97 1 81
DEN Jamaal Charles 25 259 2 229
DET Ray Rice 13 166 1 150
GNB Cedric Benson 29 141 0 83
HOU Chris Johnson 16 197 2 185
IND Fred Jackson 33 212 0 146
JAX Chris Johnson 24 228 2 200
KAN Jerome Harrison 34 286 3 248
MIA DeAngelo Williams 13 122 0 96
MIN Ray Rice 10 77 2 77
NOR DeAngelo Williams 21 149 2 127
NWE Arian Foster 20 119 2 99
NYG Jonathan Stewart 28 206 1 160
NYJ Maurice Jones-Drew 24 123 1 85
OAK Willis McGahee 16 167 3 165
PHI Frank Gore 16 107 0 75
PIT Ray Rice 30 141 0 81
SDG Rashard Mendenhall 29 165 2 127
SEA Frank Gore 16 207 2 195
SFO Chris Johnson 25 135 2 105
STL Justin Forsett 22 130 2 106
TAM DeAngelo Williams 30 152 2 112
TEN Maurice Jones-Drew 8 177 2 181
WAS Michael Turner 18 166 2 150

This entry was posted on Friday, August 20th, 2010 at 7:56 am and is filed under Running Backs, Statgeekery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.