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Season Reviews: Ryan Grant

While our 2009 wasn't as successful as it was for other teams, we saw enough to expect more success in 2010 and beyond. There's a lot to like about the Green Bay Packers going forward, unless of course you're cheering for the other team. But which players fit in the best? Which don't? Which ones are keepers, and which ones need to be driven out of town? It's time to look at who did well (and who didn't), and ultimately what their role will be going forward.

We actually jumped the gun on this subject way back in November, when I dove head-first into the mysterious vortex that is the Ryan Grant debate. But in the spirit of the offseason player reviews, and in light of Grant's second half improvement, the debate merits revisiting.

Let's recap: Grant was undrafted out of Notre Dame and came to the Packers via trade in 2007. His league debut featured rushing for 929 yards in 9 games and a 200+ yard outburst in the playoff victory against Seattle. Well worth the price of a 6th round pick, eh? Then, 2008 rolled around, and Grant's agent took advantage of that year's version of Favregeddon and got his client paid, but the holdout and a hamstring injury limited his pre-season training, effectively scuttling his 2008 season outlook. Sure, he still managed 1200+ yards, but only 4 touchdowns, a 3.9 ypc average, and 4 fumbles.

We figured, hey, one bad year does not ruin a productive player. And considering Grant was (and still is) one of the few running backs who accounts for the majority of his team's carries (50% in 2007, 71% in 2008, 64% in 2009), he'd certainly have enough opportunities to produce. His stats for this past season were 1253 yards with a 4.4 ypc average, 11 touchdowns, and 0 fumbles. Certainly seems productive, doesn't it?

But here's the question that we can't seem to shake: is Grant really the best back for the offense?

I did a lot of fancy-schmancy number crunching in the November article, but the conclusion I came to was one that many of you had already reached:

I'm no statistician, but even I'm shocked at how much the numbers back the argument. Ryan Grant simply isn't consistent enough to be the running back that McCarthy wants him to be. Is he effective? In certain situations, yes. But I don't think that he should be a 20+ carry workhorse; he simply isn't that kind of player.

Was it fair to make these claims with nine games remaining in the season, including a five-game winning streak, where Grant was the team's leading rusher in each game? Maybe, maybe not. But the numbers told the story as of Week 8. But what about weeks 9 through 17? Let's find out.

* * *

The first metric involves dividing Grant's production by the number of attempts he receives. NFL running backs typically carry the ball 20 times in a game. The best way to break down a running back's production is to look at how many yards he gains on attempts 1 through 10, then how much he gains on 11 through 20, and finally anything above carry number 21.

Attempts Yards Average TDs
1-10 450 2175 4.8 15
11-20 306 1208 3.9 10
21+ 77 323 4.2 1

Surprisingly, Grant is least effective between carries 11 and 20. Back in November, he was least successful with the highest number of carries, but a few big gains late in games help to restore both his numbers and his reputation as a big-play back. Broken down further by number of games played further shows this anomaly:

Carries Yards/game
1-10 48.3
11-20 26.8
21+ 7.1

This metric shows the same conclusion I/we reached in November:

Anytime Grant carries more than ten times, his yards gained for the second decuplet of carries is halved. Halved! For a back who's known for explosive gains throughout a game, it sure seems like he can't do much after his tenth attempt.

And what's worse? The difference between the numbers then and now is stilted even stronger towards the first section of carries: the career totals are two yards more for carries 1-10 and two yards less for carries 11-20.

* * *

One of the most damning statistics regarding the Grant debate was how he consistently did less with more. His yards-per-game average when he received a significant share of the team's carries (between 51 and 74%) was actually higher than when his share of the carries was over 75%. In other words, he managed fewer yards despite getting more opportunities.

With the additional nine games of the 2009 season, however, these numbers become normalized. Well, as normal as a self-created metric can be. As I stated in November, I don't have an official name for it yet, but it measures Grant's production based on what percentage of the team's carries he is responsible for. I tried to quantify how well Grant performed when he received a minority of the carries (< 50%), a significant share (51-74%), and a majority (>75%).

% of team's carries Games Attempts/game Yards/game Average/game TDs/game
<50% 6 7.8 44.3 5.67 0.33
51-74% 23 16.9 78.0 4.61 0.56
>75% 16 21.5 84.4 3.92 0.50

After adding the entirety of the 2009 season, a logical progression emerges where Grant consistently puts up more numbers the more chances he gets. In November, his yards/game average in games where he accounted for more than three-quarters of the offensive carries was two yards less than where he was between 51% and 74%. That anomaly seems to have corrected itself, but one can't help but wonder why.

The short, simple answer? Signing Ahman Green. The long, extended answer? Green was signed after week 6 and didn't even play until November 1st, the day before this was published. Between weeks 8 and 17, Green played in six games, averaging 6.5 carries and 26.5 yards per game. Paired with a back who has potential for explosive gains but can't produce effectively with too many carries, the combination of Ahman Green's relative health and veteran experience (along with the complete nonfactor that is Brandon Jackson) was the perfect elixer for what ailed the Packers' run offense.

* * *

It's obvious that the correllation between Ahman Green's return and Ryan Grant's newfound effectiveness after week 8 is more than just coincidence. Grant could shine as a complimentary back. He is above-average as a workhorse. But in a setup where the offense only needs to run the ball 25 times and Grant is only counted on for (about) 16 of those carries, he can be extremely effective. He might never be a 100-yards-a-game guy...but he doesn't have to be.

Obviously, with a passing attack as potent as Green Bay has, it would be nice for the number one running back to be a credible receiving threat. Grant is servicable in the pass-catching department, but he's nothing to write home about. This flaw in his game is one of the driving forces behind fan-led pushes to sign players like LaDanian Tomlinson or Brian Westbrook, who excelled at catching passes.

In my opinion, a pass-catching running back is so much lower on the priority list that it doesn't even register. With two solid receivers starting with two developing ones backing them up and two very good tight ends (one of whom might be special), and all in an offense that promotes short-range passes to produce YAC, what are you going to do with a RB? Unless you can fix the problem that plagues the Packers' screen plays (which have been downright woeful for a while), it's not necessary. A back in this offense needs to run hard, make quick cuts, and move the chains. That's about it. Ryan Grant can do long as he's not all by himself.

But unfortunately for him, the season reviews are all about individuals. So, dear readers...