By Bill Barnwell
The Ravens’ acquisition of Willis McGahee this offseason was a curious one. It wasn’t unexpected on McGahee’s behalf, as the then-Bills running back had expressed his interest in leaving Buffalo by criticizing its women. Furthermore, the Ravens understandably wanted an upgrade on Jamal Lewis, who seemed washed up despite only being 27 years old.
What made it strange was that the Ravens, of any team, should have seen how fungible running back performance was. After drafting Lewis in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft, the Ravens allowed him to start while benching their previous starter, Priest Holmes. Holmes served as Lewis’ backup before departing for Kansas City, where he put up several historic seasons as part of the offensive juggernaut there. Holmes’ replacement as Lewis’ backup was Chester Taylor, who then departed for Minnesota after his rookie contract expired and proceeded to put up a 1216-yard season.
Still not convinced of the suitability of any back to fill in within their offense, though, the Ravens acquired McGahee for two third-round picks and a seventh-round pick. At the time, I wrote:
McGahee has the cachet of being a star running back, but he isn’t. Astute observers would note that his two 100-yard games in 2006 came against the Jets, who had the worst rush defense in football last season. His DVOA, which has remained remarkably consistent for his three seasons ( 0.4% in 2004, -1.3% in 2005, and -1.6% in 2006), isn’t the stuff of star players — it’s the home of guys like Vernard Morency, Greg Jones, and Artrose Pinner. While the price the Ravens paid wasn’t that expensive, the contract they gave McGahee was. Durability concerns alone would make the contract ill-advised, but the running back the Ravens are getting is not the one they’re paying for.
Essentially, what I saw in McGahee was a back that had simply not developed as a runner. Although he wasn’t playing in front of a great offensive line, according to the Adjusted Line Yards statistic we track at FO that measures offensive line performance without including the long runs by running backs that offensive lines have little to do with after the first few yards, McGahee’s new offensive line was actually slightly worse than the one he was leaving. Buffalo’s line ranked 23rd, while Baltimore’s was 25th; in addition, Baltimore lost a starting lineman in the offseason, while Buffalo added two.
Either way, the difference between the offensive lines wasn’t dramatic, but adding McGahee should have at least been a step in the right direction, right?
Well, not necessarily.
There are several questions that come up in relation to such a move, and we have the data set to answer them all. First, let’s define a group of backs similar to McGahee — since 1988, exactly 30 backs have moved from one team to another over an offseason and been the starting running back (defined as the back with the most carries on the team) for both. Those will be the 30 backs we’ll be looking at.
First, do those running backs offer an improvement over their predecessors? The answer is, well, a little bit. When those 30 running backs went to their new teams, their yards per carry was .12 yards higher than the previous back. However, that’s almost wholly attributable to Marshall Faulk, who replaced the absolutely execrable Robert Holcombe, who averaged 2.35 yards per carry in his year as the Rams’ most frequent ballcarrier. Faulk, of course, got that up to 5.46. If you take Faulk out and look at the other 29 backs, the average yards per carry is only .02. Of the 30 backs, 16 registered an improvement over the previous backs, while 14 declined. Regardless, it’s a small step in a positive direction.
If we look at DVOA, things are relatively similar. Since we only have DVOA data stretching back to 1996, our data set is limited to 17 of the 30 backs, but of the 17 backs, nine registered an improvement for their team’s rushing over the previous year, while eight declined. The backs saw their new teams’ rushing DVOA increase by an average of 3.8% with the new players as starters.
What about the players themselves, though? Did they improve and, with that in mind, should we have expected bigger numbers from McGahee? The answer appears to be no — of the 30 backs, their yards per carry average actually dropped .01 points from their previous season. In other words, there was almost no effect whatsoever. 15 of the backs improved their new team, while 15 of them saw the new team decline.
Currently, McGahee’s putting on a performance markedly similar to those he did in Buffalo, with the main difference being that the former Miami star has remained healthy. His yards per carry are up, but that appears to be more of a virtue of his usage pattern, seeing more carries in 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations. His DVOA has actually dropped to – 10.5%, and his success rate, which tracks how successful a runner is at achieving the yards needed to stay on track towards or actually reach a first down, is a below-average 44%. McGahee may not be playing much worse, but his situation has changed, and although we can make excuses for his quarterback situation, it ignores a bigger point while proving it: Adding a big-name running back is rarely the solution to solving a problem within a team’s running game, and Willis McGahee, talented as he is, wasn’t the man who was going to save the Baltimore Ravens offense.