December 6, 2016

Pass-Catching Backs

By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day

This week sends the Patriots to the one of this season’s surprise packages in the 4-2 Minnesota Vikings. Well, surprising to me at least — I picked the Vikings as the team most likely to have the 2007 #1 overall selection in the Football Outsiders Season Predictions. While four of the ten FO writers participating chose the surprisingly competent Bills, two others chose the Raiders, who may already have Brady Quinn jerseys in stock. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Raiders sign Jonathan Quinn and have him wear the same jersey number that Brady Quinn does, just so they can start selling that jersey now. Alternately, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Raiders sign Jonathan Quinn because they are, unfortunately for Raiders fans, the Oakland Raiders.

Let’s try and keep things pleasant, though. The Vikings have played above expectations by employing, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic, the third-best defense in football so far this season. Unfortunately for them, it’s had to overcome the 24th best offense in football. One of the strange things about the Vikings offense is that, right now, their leading receiver is a halfback, Chester Taylor. Granted, he has 21 receptions, and two other players have 20 and 19 receptions, respectively, but he’s the leader right now.

I should give a disclaimer here: I love running backs that can catch the ball — for about six straight years, I’d make sure to grab Larry Centers with my last pick in fantasy football. By mid-season each year, whoever’d drafted Rashaan Salaam or Curtis Enis or Anthony Thomas (do you see a trend here?) would need a second running back and would pay far over the odds to get him. This happened every year without fail. What I noticed, though, was that while Centers bumped around from team to team, his teams usually didn’t do very well: he only played on three teams with a winning record in 14 seasons, one of which being the 2003 Pats, where he really played a peripheral role.

With memories of Larry Centers getting dealt for Jerry Rice running through my head, I decided to go back and take a look at teams who’d had their running back be their leading receiver, to see if the teams had anything in common. I also wanted to see if teams that used a running back as their most frequent (if not primary) receiver enjoyed success on a regular basis or struggled, to see if the Vikings’ frequent use of Taylor might portend future struggle.

My hypothesis was that teams that used running backs as their leading receivers did so because they had poor talent at wide receiver and/or couldn’t keep their quarterback upright long enough to throw the ball downfield, resulting in short dumpoffs for little-to-no-gain. I didn’t think that teams were designing their playbooks to be built around throwing to their running back, and as a result, having a running back who caught the ball more than anyone else on your team would be a reference point similar to teams that have been using non-Tim Wakefield knuckleballers in the last fifteen years; the only way that Jared Fernandez or Steve Sparks have gotten innings this decade is by pitching for really bad teams that just need to throw someone out there, so in the same way, the only way these teams could advance the ball even a little bit would be to dump the ball off to their running back for a few measly yards on third and long.

Starting off at the advent of the sixteen-game schedule, I located every team since 1978 (short 1982 and 1987) that has had a running back lead it in receptions. Somewhat surprisingly to me, that resulted in 146 different teams, or nearly six full teams a season. I never realized that so many teams had a running back catch the most balls for a single season! There are some situations in which the same players repeatedly pop up: LaDainian Tomlinson and Tiki Barber, for one. On the other hand, though, there are some weird players like former Falcons running back John Settle. In 1988, he led his team with 68 receptions; no one else had more than 37, and even that was fellow backfield mate Gene Lang! The next year, Lang and rookie Keith Jones had more catches than Settle out of the backfield, while Shawn Collins and Michael Haynes caught more balls whilst split out. To go from first on your team in receptions to fifth is a pretty dramatic drop.

What I found out about the teams is that they weren’t very different from the average NFL team. The 146 teams I looked at won an average of 7.73 games per season, only slightly less than that of the average NFL team (factoring in the effect of ties, NFL teams win a hair-on-Matt-Hasselbeck’s-head sized amount less than eight games per season). So, clearly, using your running back more often any of your wide receivers to catch the ball isn’t much of an impediment to winning games.

Lots of the running backs, I found, were stars who simply got the ball running and receiving a whole lot: guys like Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, and Roger Craig in the eighties, and the aforementioned Tomlinson and Barber in the modern day. The Vikings are employing Chester Taylor in this way, as he has 137 of the team’s 165 carries. Centers, though, never led his team in rushing; the only year he came close was 1996, when he had 116 carries to LeShon Johnson’s 141. I wanted to isolate players like Centers, who were used specifically as the pass-catching backs on their team, in order to see if that disproved my hypothesis further.

Of those 146 teams, 67 of them employed a back as their leading receiver who was not their leading rusher. Those teams won an average of…8.31 games per season, over a half-win per season more than those 79 teams that used a single player to lead them in both rushing and receiving. Could that be due to fatigue on the part of that star player? Perhaps. That’s something I’ll look at later on this season. I was really surprised, though, to see these teams employing secondary halfbacks as their top receivers winning more games than teams who used one all-purpose guy as their featured receiver.

No one, though, holds a candle to Centers when it comes to this situation. He led teams in receiving but not rushing seven times in fourteen seasons, including four consecutive years with some miserable Cardinal teams in the mid-nineties. No other player can match those numbers. Some of the closer ones include:

Kimble Anders, Kansas City (1994, 1996, 1998)
You’ll note from the years above that Anders led the Chiefs in receiving every other year over the course of six seasons. Those seasons, they won 9, 9, and 7 games, respectively. The odd-numbered years surrounding them? They won 11, 13, 13, and 9. Oops. Anders isn’t exactly the most representative of these backs when it comes to seeing his team’s performance improve, I guess. Anders was actually outgained by fellow backfieldmate Todd McNair in 1995, but was in the shadow of wide receivers otherwise. All in all, Anders was a very useful role player on the team — not only did he catch balls, but he was regarded as a solid fullback, averaged 4.6 yards a carry over his career, and made three Pro Bowls. When the Chiefs tried to make him their starting running back in 1999, Anders suffered an injury in the second game of the season (while running for 142 yards against Denver on Monday Night) and went on IR. The next season was his last.

Keith Byars, Philadelphia (1989, 1990, 1991)
One of the most versatile players in the modern NFL era, Byars actually led the Eagles in rushing his rookie season (1986) as well as in 1988 (where he actually also led the team in receptions as well); in 1999, he had 133 carries as Anthony Toney (172 carries) took over for him as the starting running back, and over the 10 seasons remaining in his career, Byars had 287 carries. Meanwhile, Byars was catching more passes than Cris Carter, Fred Barnett (who he tied in 1991), and Calvin Williams as he was the point man on an offense that was 3rd in points scored in 1990 — of course, into 1991’s life, the proverbial Rich Kotite fell. Well, the actual Rich Kotite. The Eagles had double-digit wins each year of the Byars-receiving era.

Ronnie Harmon, San Diego (1991, 1992, 1994)
Harmon’s tenure saw rapid shifts in both system (former BC man Dan Henning being replaced in 1992 by Bobby Ross) and success (from 4 wins in 1991 to 11 in 1992, 8 in 1993, and then 11 again in 1994), but Harmon remained a useful cog in what was a rather successful Chargers offense under Ross. Also worth noting is that Harmon’s catches were more successful than that of most running backs; while the average running back who led his team in receptions averaged 9.15 yards per catch, Harmon averaged 10.4 for his career, and 10.25 from 1991-1994.

John Williams, Seattle/Pittsburgh (1988, 1990, 1992, 1994)
Even weirder than Anders, John Williams managed to pull this feat off for four consecutive even-numbered seasons, and managed to do so on two coasts. In fact, it’s pretty rare that these sort of players lead two teams in receptions but not rushing attempts; only Williams, Centers, and Richie Anderson can say they’ve done it. (Centers, by the way, did it for three different teams, the only person to do so.) Williams wasn’t like Harmon, Byars, or Anders, serving as a fullback who only occasionally saw a carry, but instead was a legitimate running back, averaging 152 carries per season over his first seven years in the NFL. He saw the last six seasons of the Chuck Knox era, and quickly became a significant part of the offense, backing up (the old) Curt Warner and becoming an excellent receiver out of the backfield, averaging over 11 yards per catch in 1987 and 1988.

In 1989, meanwhile, Williams was only one catch short of Brian Blades, which put him into the rarefied air of Centersville; strangely enough, though, his yards per catch dropped from 11.2 to 8.6 and stayed around there for the rest of his career. Williams stuck around for the beginning of Tom Flores’ nihilistic football statement that was the early-nineties Seahawks, but once Rick Mirer began to get entrenched as Seahawks QB, Williams moved to Pittsburgh, where he repeated the feat out of the backfield whilst backing up Barry Foster and Bam Morris on a 12-win team. That year, he outcaught both Charles Johnson and Yancey Thigpen. The next year, the Steelers brought in a similar player in Erric Pegram, and Williams was out of the league in 1996.

If anyone’s similar to Centers statistically, it’s Anders; they both didn’t average very much per catch and they both were given aborted runs as the starting halfback, but stylistically, they were two very different players. In addition, Anders spent his entire career playing for a pretty consistently good Kansas City team, while Centers spent his career floundering in Arizona and Buffalo, finally winning his ring in 2003.

So, what did the research show here? So far, I think it’s safe to say that using a running back more often than any of your wide receivers doesn’t prevent your team from victory. That being said, I think the research about running backs who lead their team in both categories might reveal something interesting about “playmakers”, and might be a sobering thought for Reggie Bush and Chester Taylor.

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