By Bill Barnwell
The Chargers have been left with a conundrum regarding the redoubling of their skill position assets twice now in the last several years. First, Drew Brees emerged as an excellent NFL quarterback just as the Chargers nabbed the promising Philip Rivers in a trade with the Giants (that also netted them Shawne Merriman, in one of the great draft-day swindles of recent memory). When Brees’ contract expired, the Chargers let him walk away to New Orleans without any compensation. While Rivers has been mostly superb in his time as an NFL starter, Brees was an MVP-caliber performer last year. Had the Chargers dealt him after 2004, they could have recouped at least something for the player. Instead, general manager A.J. Smith decided that there was more value in Brees’ skills for a year as opposed to what he could’ve acquired in return in trade (whether it be draft picks and/or veteran players in addition to cap space).
Another somewhat similar situation brewed this past offseason, as Chargers backup RB Michael Turner was a restricted free agent. As per the rules of restricted free agency, the Chargers were allowed to tender him a contract at one of several levels. Turner received a $2.35 million tender, the highest available and accordingly, the one with the most compensation due the Chargers were a team to sign Turner away from them. The Chargers would have received a first- and third-round pick in exchange for Turner had he signed elsewhere; while there were trade talks around the running back, nothing was consummated, and Turner signed his tender offer and is continuing to backup LaDainian Tomlinson this year.
Now, while people may be aware that Michael Turner is a fine running back, allow me to point out how fine he actually is. Turner’s career numbers through three seasons and one week are astoundingly good; he’s averaged 5.9 yards per carry, exceeding Tomlinson’s yards per carry by more than a yard each full season.
That sort of argument, while a point in Turner’s favor, is a misuse of statistics. Namely, Tomlinson gets the ball in situations where he couldn’t possibly gain significant yardage (e.g. inside the five and in short-yardage situations). That’s where DVOA, our pet stat at Football Outsiders, comes in. DVOA measures how a player does each play versus what the league average is, accounting for down and distance, the yardage between the offense and the end zone, and the defense being faced. In addition, Tomlinson carries the ball much more frequently than Turner, which needs to be accounted for — there’s a benefit to having a back who can carry the ball 300 times at a rate better than a guy like Kevan Barlow. We define “replacement-level” as the level of a player the caliber of Barlow, freely-available talent, and then measure a player’s value on a per-play basis as opposed to that freely-available talent cumulatively over the course of a season.
Somewhat surprisingly, while Tomlinson’s DPAR obviously far outweighs Turner’s, Turner’s DVOA is still better than Tomlinson’s.
As you can see, while Tomlinson was the best back in the league on a cumulative basis last season according to DPAR, Turner was the best back in the league on a per-play basis. It’s, in fact, the best DVOA for a back with more than 50 carries in the eleven years we’ve got DVOA numbers for.
While DVOA is a more accurate indicator of performance than unadjusted yards, again, we see that Turner’s still performing better than Tomlinson on a per-play basis. There’s a second set of reasons for that, none of which are easily quantifiable or even provable. He gets more rest. He doesn’t start, and comes in when the defense is tired. The defense doesn’t prepare for him the same way they do for Tomlinson, and they don’t adjust accordingly. There’s probably some truth in those things, but there’s every reason to think Michael Turner’s a pretty good running back.
There’s a reason to think that he’s not, though, and his name is Richard Huntley.
Some of you may remember Huntley; he was a relatively nondescript running back for a few years in the NFL, playing for four teams. He was drafted by Atlanta in the fourth round in 1996, spent a year there, was waived, and then went to Pittsburgh, where he sat on the practice squad for a season. In 1998, he had 55 carries for 242 yards; decent numbers, but a product of context and full of lots of third-and-long useless yardage, as was reflected in his -35.2% DVOA. 1999, though, brought a new Richard Huntley to the fore. He gained 6.1 yards per carry on 93 carries, became a solid receiver in the rushing game, and put up a 21.9% rushing DVOA, good for fourth in the league. The Steelers responded by giving him a three-year, $4 million contract and a chance to compete with Jerome Bettis (who was in the final year of his contract) for the starting job in training camp. Bettis won out, but as if to prove his 1999 was not a fluke, Huntley’s rushing DVOA in 2000 rose to 30.3%, good for fourth in football. Bettis’ DVOA was significantly lower, at 10.7%, but that was still good enough for seventh in the league.
Huntley was cut after the season and signed with Carolina, where he would challenge the oft-injured Tshimanga Biakabutuka for the starting gig. In traditional fashion, Biakabutuka got hurt and Huntley was the starting back for most of the season. Huntley’s line: 165 carries, 658 yards, a -25% DVOA, and -6.2 DPAR — in other words, replacing Huntley with the best free agent you could find at the minimum salary would have been preferable to actually using him. Carolina went 1-15 that year, George Seifert was fired, and Huntley had three more carries in his career before he was out of football.
Huntley’s an example of something DVOA can’t account for, but a scout or an observer with access to DVOA can: The rest of the offense. As useful as DVOA is, it can’t account for the quality of an offensive line or a quarterback’s ability to put a running back in a good situation more often than not. It’s just impossible to get a first down on third-and-8 running the ball every time. Huntley played with a very good offensive line in Pittsburgh. He certainly did not in Carolina. In Pittsburgh, his quarterback was Kordell Ste…people thought he was good then. In Carolina, his quarterback was Chris Weinke. The situation in Pittsburgh was just more conducive to being a successful running back than in Carolina. DVOA can help strip some of that information out, but not all of it.
So, then, Huntley presents the cautionary tale in thinking that signing a successful backup from a pretty good rushing team is a good way to upgrade your running back spot. Of course, there are positive examples too. What we can do to more accurately ascertain whether the new running back was an improvement on the old one is to judge their DVOA versus that of the starter’s the previous year’s. While Huntley’s -25.0% DVOA was certainly abysmal, Biakabutuka’s DVOA the year before was an even more abysmal -26.1% DVOA. We track a statistic called “Success Rate” which measures what percentage of the time a running back has a “successful carry” — meaning he got a chunk of yardage significant enough to push his team closer to a first down than closer to losing the ball. The average starting running back succeeds about 43% of the time. In 2000, Tshiminga Biakabutuka succeeded 20.5% of the time. That’s astoundingly poor. Huntley got that up to 39%, which is at least remotely close to competency.
Perhaps the best way to see what teams might be getting into if they sign Michael Turner after this season is to look at the performance of teams who have acquired another team’s backup running back (defined as the back with the second-most carries on the team) and made them their starters. We’ll then track their performance the year after and compare it both to how they performed the year prior and how they did relative to the back they replaced. Since we only have DVOA and DPAR for seasons from 1996-2006, this analysis will only include backs from those seasons.
1. Lamar Smith (1997-98 and 1999-00)
Lamar Smith was one of two backs (both of whom were named Smith) to pull this move twice in his career. Starting off his career with Seattle, Smith was an average back by all measures — he averaged right around 4.5 yards per carry, and his DVOA in 1996 and 1997 was right around there: 3.2% and 0.2%. Nothing awful by any means, but not a star about to breakout, either. The Ditka administration in New Orleans brought him in to replace the awful Ray Zellars-Mario Bates hydra of suck, and Smith only made it to 138 carries. His DVOA, a miserable -38.6%, was actually worse than Zellars’ -34.2% the year before, and way behind Bates’ -19.0%. The result? Mike Ditka traded his whole draft for Ricky Williams (who put up a -30.6% DVOA his rookie year), and Smith returned to his backup role for a year.
Smith then moved onto Miami, where Jimmy Johnson was fooling around with Cecil Collins, J.J Johnson, and the last vestiges of Karim Abdul-Jabbar’s career. He made Smith his starter and Smith proceeded to not only bump his DVOA back up to a very respectable -1.6%, he had one of the great out-of-nowhere fantasy season of all-time, with 309 carries for 1139 yards and 16 touchdowns. He improved on Collins’ -18.5% DVOA dramatically. A year later, he averaged only 3.1 yards per carry, and in 2002, Ricky Williams replaced him again.
2. Charlie Garner (1998-99)
Garner’s mercurial career saw him start off as the backup to Ricky Watters in Philadelphia; when Watters left, it seemed likely that Garner would get the starting gig, but he was beat out by Duce Staley. Garner took the opportunity to replace the injured Garrison Hearst in San Francisco, and had an excellent year on a terrible 49ers team (this was the year that Steve Young went down at the hands of Aeneas Williams in Week 3). Garner’s DVOA went from -15.9% to 7.6%, and he kept his DVOA pretty close to Hearst’s 1997 performance of 9.4%. On a significantly worse team (the 49ers went from 12-4 to 4-12), it was an admirable performance and the beginning of Garner’s short career as a starting running back.
3. Ahman Green (1999-00)
Very few people, by this point, remember Green starting his career in Seattle. After being drafted in the third round in 1998, he spent two years struggling to get a foothold on any significant playing time, and was then dealt to the Packers for CB Fred Vinson, a second-round pick the year before. Vinson never played a game for the Seahawks. Green gained over 8,000 yards for the Packers. Oops. Green’s DVOA as a Seahawk in 1999 was good (21.4%), but it was gained on only 26 carries and that’s not enough of a sample to be of any reliability. As a Packer, his DVOA was a solid 6.9%, which was a significant improvement over Dorsey Levens’ -13.5% DVOA the year before. It’d be hard to find any way to say this wasn’t an incredibly successful move for both Green and the Packers.
4. Priest Holmes (2000-01)
The big one. Holmes had a strange start to his career. His first year with any playing time, he ran for 1008 yards and gained 4.3 yards per carry. The next year, he was hurt and only played eight games, but gained a ridiculous 5.6 yards per carry, good for a 22.9% DVOA, second in the league. The Ravens drafted Jamal Lewis and won the Super Bowl in 2000; Holmes backed him up and had a 12.5% DVOA, fourth in the league. If Football Outsiders had been around then, Holmes would have been one of the players we championed the way we do Jerious Norwood now.
Holmes went on, of course, to gain 1555 yards behind a great offensive line in Kansas City the next year. His DVOA that season was 20%, a slight improvement over the criminally underrated Tony Richardson’s 18.1% the year before. It was the third-best DVOA in the league that year, though, and Holmes would be in that rarified air until he got hurt in 2005. He’s the inverse Richard Huntley.
5. Terry Allen (2000-01)
The running back who would not die, Allen came back from injuries to have seemingly three careers. He was solid (4.5% DVOA) as Ricky Williams’ backup in New Orleans, and when Jamal Lewis went down for the season in 2001, with Holmes gone, Allen became the starter in what was his last NFL season. His DVOA wasn’t very good at -5.8%, but it wasn’t a disaster, either, when you compare it to Lewis’ 5.5% the year before.
6. Antowain Smith (2000-01, 2004-05)
The other Smith who pulled this move twice, Antowain lost his job to Travis Henry in Buffalo and was one of the thousands of veteran refugees brought in by Bill Belichick for the magical 2001 season. His DVOA stayed remarkably similar to his performance in Buffalo, going from -9.5% to -10%, but it was a ways better than Kevin Faulk’s -20.7% the year before, or J.R. Redmond’s -19.9%. I think everyone here knows the Smith story well enough.
In 2004, he rose again! After being let go by the Patriots, he ended up in Tennessee, where he backed up Chris Brown. He made his way the year after to New Orleans in its Katrina-riddled season, where stats are pretty irrelevant. Again, his DVOA stayed remarkably consistent (-12.7% to -12.5%), and while he was slightly worse than Deuce McAllister had been the year before, there’s no real predicative value to the 2005 Saints season.
7. Richard Huntley (2000-01)
8. Trung Canidate (2001-02)
Canidate was the speed demon and late first-round pick who was supposed to make the terrifying Rams offense even more so, but he never really made an impact. He barely played in 2000 and 2002, although he was fantastic in 2001, when he averaged 5.8 yards per carry and his 24.1% DVOA was best in football. The Rams shipped him to Washington, where he served as the starter in Steve Spurrier’s offense, splitting carries with Rock Cartwright and Ladell Betts. He actually was an improvement on Stephen Davis’ -8.4% DVOA, putting up a respectable -2.2% DVOA, but he couldn’t take the workload of the starting role, Washington traded for Clinton Portis, and Canidate never played again.
9. Warrick Dunn (2001-02)
Dunn wasn’t a backup inasmuch as he was a complimentary back to Mike Alstott. He was the featured back from 1997-98 and in 2000, but was technically the backup by seven carries in 2001 by virtue of missing three games. He went to Atlanta and was a big improvement over Maurice Smith, who also had one year as a starter and never played again.
10. Amos Zereoue (2003-04)
Zereoue was hyped as a good running back while backing up Jerome Bettis, but the numbers don’t show it. His best DVOA was -9.4%, and he was usually closer to -20%. He never had an above-average success rate, and was eventually dumped off to Oakland for the first year of the Norv Turner era. Replacing Wheatley (5.3% DVOA), Zereoue’s -14.1% DVOA did not help the Raiders’ many problems one bit. He made it to three games for the ’05 Patriots and was done.
11. Thomas Jones (2003-04)
Jones is another guy who had a strange career dictated by context; he went from first-round bust in Arizona to backup material in Tampa Bay to successful back on a Super Bowl team in Chicago. He wasn’t particularly effective in Tampa Bay, putting up a -12.4% DVOA while backing up Michael Pittman (-2.8% DVOA), but the Bears acquired him to supplant the A-Train, Anthony Thomas, who had actually put up a reasonably close to average -3.8% DVOA the year before. Jones got all the way up to -2.3% DVOA before really hitting his stride in 2005.
12. Corey Dillon (2003-04)
Another well-known story to readers of this site. Dillon’s -5.8% DVOA in Cincinnati in 2003 wasn’t fabulous by any means. He got it up to 21.2% in 2004 in New England, supplanting Smith, who was also at -5.8% in 2003.
13. Lamont Jordan (2004-05)
For my money, the closest comp to Turner. Jordan put up some extreme DVOAs as a Jet: in 2001, he was at 46.6% on 39 carries; in 2002, -40% on 84. 2003 saw him actually be average, with a 4.2% DVOA on 46 carries, and then back with 93 carries in 2004, his final year as a Jet, his 36.6% was second-best in the league. By comparison, Curtis Martin’s DVOA that year was 20%, good for eighth in the league, but he led the league with 54.9 DPAR.
The salary cap-strapped Jets had no way to keep Jordan to backup Martin, even though Martin was old and likely to breakdown the next year (which he did). Jordan moved onto Oakland, which gave him a five-year, $27.5 million deal. As you might remember, he was not the best back in football again. His DVOA dropped down to 1.5%; this, however, was still an improvement on Zereoue’s -14.1%. He was hurt for almost all of 2006.
14. Chester Taylor (2005-06)
Another Raven who flew the coop. He was no Holmes, as his -8.1% DVOA as a backup in 2005 was by no means spectacular. With Minnesota needing a running back after Whizzenation, they signed Taylor and gave him the bulk of the carries behind their restructured offensive line. Taylor wasn’t particularly great for a guy who gained 1,216 yards. His -9.4% DVOA was worse than he’d been in Baltimore, and was a step down from Mewelde Moore’s 1.9% DVOA the year before. Taylor was more durable, though, which is why he got the rock.
So, then, combining empirical judgement of the results along with some of my own opinions, I count eight improvements, five declines, and three relative washes. Of course, a back with the success of Turner isn’t really comparable to the failure Ahman Green was thought to be, or the starter Warrick Dunn was. In more likelihood, you can classify Turner in a group of elite backups alongside Jordan, Holmes, and Huntley. Those players went to three teams with very different offensive lines and played accordingly. Turner’s career, and his future as a star back, depends upon the same.