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The Elusive #1 Running Back

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  Wcg_thumb_notes_mediumWe have spent months and years discussing the Chicago Bears receivers; who is our #1 receiver, what is a true #1 receiver, is Devin Aromashodu that guy? is Devin Hester that guy?  The Bears' running game has not exactly been a beacon of hope either, so now lets talk a little bit about our running backs. 

After his stellar rookie year, we all thought Matt Forte was going to be "the man": a 3-down, workhorse, TD-machine running back.  His 2nd year, marred by injury, left us rethinking that notion.  AP backup Chester Taylor is now in the fold.  Running back by committee! Yeah! (Fantasy Football players everywhere sigh.)  Both Forte & Taylor are almost adequate runners (2009 YPC of  3.6 for both) and are great catching passes out of the backfield (57 & 44 receptions in 2009 respectively) .  Forte is a below average pass-blocker, while Taylor is sufficient (link).

A lot of these numbers are dependent on the offensive system they are in, the quality of the offensive linemen, the quality of the QB, the quality of the defense they face, etc.  Just how elusive are these guys?

ProFootballFocus has developed a stat called elusive rating.  Over the course of a season they keep track of an enormous amount of statistics which can be found here for rushing stats & here for receiving stats for running backs. Besides the obvious stats like yards, attempts, receptions, etc; they also have "YCo" which is the cumulative number of yards gained rushing after contact with a defender.  Also listed is "MT" which is the cumulative number of tackles broken or avoided.  MT is listed separately in the rushing & receiving stats pages. 

The PFF article looks at the top 10 & bottom 10 of yards after contact as a percentage of total yards gained, and also the amount of missed tackles as a ratio of total touches.  These charts can teach us a lot about what running backs are doing their work themselves (see Michael Bush & Tim Hightower), or greatly helped by their offensive line (see Thomas Jones). 

They combine all this data to come up with the Elusive Rating. 

To determine the Elusive Rating, we combined receptions and carries to create a "ball-handling opportunities" figure, and then combined total missed tackles forced. Next we divided the total missed tackles forced by the ball-handling opportunities. Then we multiplied this figure by the player's average yards after first contact [rushing] x100 to make the end figure.

The magic formula:


NOTE:  They do not have a YCo number for receptions.  The YCo is yards gained after contact with a defender when rushing the football. YAC is yards after catch irrespective of contact with a defender and is not used in this formula.

So where is all this leading to?  Well when looking at the top 10 & bottom 10, we see the Bears new RB Chester Taylor at dead last in the NFL.  Ugh.

Another back whose workload has always been carefully monitored is [Adrian] Peterson. The load-sharing dynamic in the Vikings' backfield last season was an interesting one, with Peterson doing much of the dirty work, and Chester Taylor being responsible largely for the third-down duties, in part because of his ability as a pass receiver and his shifty nature after the catch. It might surprise some (it certainly surprised us) to see Taylor rank dead last of all runners who qualified in Elusive Rating, with a score of just 8.03.

By contrast, Peterson was able to fight his way to a score of 48.60, good enough for ninth overall. Perhaps the inability of Taylor to get any more than was available factored into Minnesota's decision to allow him to leave in free agency, and their aggressive trade up in the draft to secure Toby Gerhart, whose game tape is all about gaining more yards than should feasibly be there.

I downloaded all the PFF running back data to recreate the results and get Forte in there too.  In 2009, of the 63 running backs who qualified (>25% of offensive plays on the field), Chester Taylor ranked 63rd (last) in elusive rating, and Matt Forte ranked 34th (middle of the pack). 

In order to expand my knowledge on some of these guys, I looked at 2008 as well.  Matt Forte ranked 52nd (bottom 1/4th) and Chester Taylor ranked a respectable 22nd. 

Elusive Rating Spreadsheet Download

2009 Top Ten Elusive:

1 Justin Forsett
2 Jonathan Stewart
3 Pierre Thomas
4 Ronnie Brown
5 Fred Jackson
6 Ahmad Bradshaw
7 Ray Rice
8 Michael Turner
9 Jamaal Charles

10 Adrian L. Peterson

2009 Bottom Ten Elusive:


54 Mike Bell
55 Jerious Norwood
56 Brian Westbrook
57 Glen Coffee
58 Larry Johnson
59 Thomas Jones
60 LaDainian Tomlinson
61 Derrick Ward

62 Brandon Jackson

63 Chester Taylor