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NFL Research sucks, says NFL Research study on impact of top-5 running backs

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Let’s ignore all context and sample size considerations and make sweeping generalizations, why don’t we?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

A quick tip for NFL.com, their research branch, and Jeremy Bergman, the author of this piece.

If I, a lone part-time football writer, have enough time, energy, and inclination to provide context to every single one of your data points, you should not be using those data points to draw huge, sweeping conclusions about anything. What am I ranting about? Here’s the headline:

“Drafting top-five RBs nets teams at least 4 more wins”

I mean...right away you know this is a lie. You know this because you watch football and read about football, and without doing any additional research it’s pretty obvious to you that something fishy is going on. Well, you’re right. There are all sorts of variables at work here including a HUGE dose of “random chance”. The sample size for this conclusion is 9 running backs. 9. And the author even concedes his own counter-argument:

Interesting too was that the team's success in the following season was relatively independent of how the running back played.

OH, YES, INTERESTING, IT’S ALMOST LIKE YOUR POINT IS COMPLETELY UNSUPPORTED.

I thought, at first this piece was written as a goof, or just for fun, maybe even making light of small sample size conclusions. Maybe it is; I’m not even 100% sure. If it is, it’s not obvious enough or witty enough to be funny, and it contains this line:

That's correlation, not causation, you say? Maybe, but the sheer coincidence of teams increasing their win totals by nearly five, on average, the year after they draft a top-tier RB is extraordinary nonetheless.

I say that, yes, and I say small sample size, and I also say a string of 4-letter words directed at the person who decided to put this up, considering now I will have running back-loving rubes pointing me to this for years. THANKS NFL RESEARCH, PLEASE TACKLE “THE SHAPE OF THE EARTH” NEXT.

Anyway, there are 9 backs here and they have 9 stories to tell. Why did their teams, on average, improve? Was it them? Was it luck? Was it good ol’ regression to the mean? Let’s add some much needed statistical Windex to this feces-encrusted glass coffee-table and see what we see.

Jamal Lewis, Ravens (BAL, 2000), 5th overall pick

1999 record: 8-8
2000 record: 12-4. (+4 games)
Primary cause of jump: QB Change, Shannon Sharpe, Jamal Lewis

Lewis may very well be the exception that proves the rule here. The 1999 Ravens had the NFL’s best defense, as you would expect, but were just 27th in total offense. This was due partially to a lackluster running game, but also due to the fact that QBs Tony Banks, Stony Case, and an extremely washed-up Scott Mitchell all featured prominently at quarterback. I think the Ray Lewis Ravens are the prototypical team that actually can find big value in a running back. Given their all-world defense, they were able to make things very easy on their offense, and could protect almost any lead.

That said, there were a few other major changes to the 2000 Ravens as well. Trent Dilfer took over for Tony Banks in Week 4 and after dropping his first start against Tennessee in which he only dropped back 13 times, he rattled off 7 wins in a row while averaging 30 dropbacks a game. Dilfer is a bit of a punching bag in terms of quarterbacks who have won rings, but he provided steady, replacement-level play to support a defense that only needed replacement-level play. Dilfer also received support in the form of the newly-signed Shannon Sharpe. The Hall of Fame tight end helped push the Ravens’ passing game from a truly terrible 28th in 1999 to a still bad, but more manageable 24th. Jamal Lewis did have a major impact in taking over for veteran Errict Rhett, and the rushing attack improved from 15th to 8th, but the Ravens were all about defense at the time and they only needed a small boost on offense.

Lewis probably was worth more than your usual highly picked back. He fell into a perfect situation featuring an elite defense and the perfect complimentary back in the form of a still frisky, pre-fantasy superstar breakout Priest Holmes, but the real lesson here isn’t about running backs. The Ravens came into 2000 already possessing the league’s best defense, and one of the best defenses ever. They had no defensive holes to fill and had finished a perfectly respectable 8-8 in 1999. The reason they HAD a top 5 pick is because in the 1999 draft, the Atlanta Falcons thought so highly of tight end Reggie Kelly that they traded their 2000 first rounder to Baltimore to jump up and select him in the 2nd round. The Ravens had a high pick because they traded down to a team that was reaching. Now that’s how you build a winner.

LaDainian Tomlinson (SD, 2001), 5th overall pick

2000 record: 1-15
2001 record: 5-11 (+4 games)
Primary Cause of Jump: Replacing Leaf

Where to even begin with this debacle. The Chargers would improve to 5-11 the following season and Tomlinson was immediately a good player, but there are so many other factors to mention that it’s almost insane. For starters, even though the 2000 Chargers were execrable, their Pythagorean record indicates that they were not quite “1-15 terrible.” Indeed, they should have been closer to 4-12 with average luck. The Chargers also employed the completely overmatched Mike Riley (editor’s note: yes, the same Mike Riley who is now the head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers) as head coach in his first season in the NFL, and started the historically terrible Ryan Leaf for most of the season. The Chargers almost couldn’t help but get better, and so they did.

In 2001, Leaf gave way to veteran Doug Flutie who would keep the spot warm for 2001 2nd-round draft pick Drew Brees. Tomlinson would help the run game go from the 30th best unit in the game up to 23rd, but the big jump was Flutie, who took the 27th best passing attack in the NFL all the way up to 11th. Tomlinson put up nice counting stats his rookie season, but he only averaged 3.6 yards per carry, and even in the passing game former Wisconsin Badger Terrell Fletcher was superior on a per-play basis. Tomlinson is an all-time great of course, and that 3.6 has a lot to do with his offensive line, but for 2001 he was only a small part in a modest improvement. In any case, the 2nd round selection of Drew Brees was by far the most important pick the Chargers would make in that draft.

Ronnie Brown (MIA, 2005), 2nd overall pick

2004 Record: 4-12
2005 Record: 9-7 (+5 games)
Primary Cause of Jump: Luck, coaching change, Ricky Williams

The 2005 draft was a perfect example of why bad teams often stay bad, as 3 running backs were taken within the first 5 picks of the draft. You may remember this draft as the one where Aaron freaking Rodgers was picked 24th overall. Miami made the first big whiff with the better of the two top-5 Auburn running backs. Yes, two backs from the same school went top 5.

The 2004 Dolphins went 4-12 under Dave Wannstedt, who was fired mid-season in favor of Jim Bates. The midseason firing tells you most of what you need to know, but it’s also worth noting that the 2004 Dolphins were slightly unlucky, and close to a 6-win team by Pythagorean Record. Their major problem was a revolving door of terrible quarterbacks: AJ Feeley, Jay Fiedler, and Sage Rosenfels. The Dolphin defense actually ranked 6th in 2004 and even a modest boost to the offense would provide a huge gain in win total if the defense held.

The Dolphins responded by signing 34-year-old Gus Frerotte who was at least an improvement over the Feeley portion of the 2004 team, though not terribly impressive. In addition, running back Ricky Williams had sat out the 2004 season in retirement (because of how terrible the quarterback situation was in the previous few years), but returned for the 2005 campaign. He played almost exactly as well as Ronnie Brown. Finally, the Dolphins also signed Nick Saban as head coach.

Miami actually did fall off a bit defensively from 6th to 10th, but they moved up significantly on offense, from 31st to 18th. The running game was a big part of that, and you may want to give Brown credit, but it’s worth noting that in 2006 the Dolphins would go 6-10, they followed that up with a 1-15 campaign, and Brown would frequently be hurt. And of course, the Dolphins passed on Aaron Rodgers.

Cedric Benson (CHI, 2005) 4th overall pick

2004 Record: 5-11
2005 Record: 11-5 (+6 games)
Primary Cause of Jump: Unrelated defensive improvement, Muhsin Muhammed, Thomas Jones, Neckbeard

The story you will see here over and over is a team with a good defense but a struggling offense attempting to fix their offense with a back. It rarely works, and it didn’t with Benson either. The 2004 Bears were 9th in defense, but dead last in offense as they split quarterback time equally between Rex Grossman, Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn, and Chad Hutchinson.

The Bears’ rushing attack did get better in 2005...behind Thomas Jones, who signed as a free agent. Even the other Adrian Peterson — you know, the one who doesn’t beat children — outgained Benson in his first year. The Bears also added veteran receiver Muhsin Muhammed, who made life easier for Kyle Orton, also taken in this draft, and Grossman. What really drove the Bears over the top was the continued development of their defense which went from 9th to first over the course of a season. Benson would only ever serve as a minor cog on some Bears teams with good-to-dominant defenses, and eventually become a Packer briefly after a solid stint in Cincinnati. Thank goodness they passed on Rodgers.

Cadillac Williams (TB, 2005)

2004 Record: 5-11
2005 Record: 11-5 (+6 games)
Primary Cause of Jump: Luck, Joey Galloway

Auburn back #2 went to the 5-11 Jon Gruden-led Bucs with the 5th pick in the 2005 draft. The 2004 Bucs under-performed their Pythagorean Record by 3 wins, making a substantial jump in 2005 very likely, and indeed, while their Pythagorean record jumped just 1 win to 9-7, their actual win total jumped all the way to 11-5.

The Bucs would have the 8th ranked defense in both 2004 and 2005, but would jump a few spots on offense. The running game was a big part of that and Williams played well, but the bigger gain may have been the increased production of Michael Pittman who thrived in a limited role, averaging 6.2 yards per carry and 8.3 yards per reception. The Bucs also got one of the greatest performances ever out of a 34-year-old wide receiver, as Joey Galloway put up almost 1300 yards and 10 TDs, all with Chris Simms and Brian Griese doing most of the throwing.

Williams would be injured frequently, and average just 3.8 yards per carry for his career, and it’s hard to argue his production was worth the high draft pick. And of course, they passed on Aaron Rodgers.

Reggie Bush (NO, 2006), #2 overall

2005 Record: 3-13
2006 Record: 10-6 (+7 games)
Primary Cause of the Jump: Like, everything except Reggie Bush.

Look, I’m going to keep this one simple. The 2005 Saints went 3-13 and improved all the way to 10-6 the following season. The reason that happened is because in 2005 they started Aaron Brooks, and in 2006 they started Drew Brees. Reggie Bush was a nice 3rd-down back and formed a formidable 2-headed attack with Deuce McAllister, but the real find of the 2006 draft was Marques Colston, who the Saints plucked with the 4th-to-last pick of the entire draft. Colston exploded for 1038 yards and 8 TDs as a rookie, something rookie receivers basically never used to do, especially compensatory 7th rounders. Also, they upgraded from Jim Haslett to Sean Payton, which is just about as large a coaching upgrade as you can have. The Saints went from the 26th-ranked passing offense to the 8th-ranked passing offense overnight, and that’s the end of that story.

Darren McFadden (OAK, 2008) #4 overall

2007 Record: 4-12
2008 Record: 5-11 (+1 game)
Primary Cause of “Jump”: Luck

The Raiders were awful at 4-12 in 2007, with a 5-11 Pythagorean record. They took McFadden with the 4th overall pick, and he went on to make 113 pretty decent carries in a crowded backfield of Justin Fargas and Michael Bush. In truth, it didn’t really matter what McFadden did as this was JaMarcus Russell’s first year as a full time starter and he was simply awful. The Raiders went 5-11 with a 5-11 Pythagorean Record, because that’s how football works.

McFadden is a decent-enough player when he’s actually on the field, but he’s not great, not on the field that much, and wasn’t a difference-maker for the Raiders in the slightest.

Trent Richardson (CLE, 2012), 3rd overall

2011 Record: 4-12
2012 Record: 5-11 (+1 game)
Primary Cause of “Jump”: Luck, a bit of Josh Gordon

I mean...look, let’s just get this out of the way. Trent Richardson is terrible. I remember one day I was driving into work shortly after Richardson was traded to the Colts, and Mike and Mike were singing the praises of the move for the Colts. At one point Greeny went to compliment Richardson and you could tell he was about to call him a 1,000 yard rusher, as if that means anything. As it turns out, Richardson has never had a 1,000 yard season, and someone must have shoved a card in front of him or something, because Greeny suddenly and awkwardly changed it to “Richardson is a former almost 1,000 yard rusher.”

Richardson has never had a season in which he averaged over 3.6 yards per carry, and the season he had 3.6 yards per carry was his rookie year. The 2011 Browns went 4-12, as the Browns are wont to do. They featured a 5-11 Pythagorean record. They would go 5-11 with Richardson, though to be fair they were closer to a 7-9 team by Pythagorean. Richardson contributed almost nothing, however; supplemental draft pick Josh Gordon would have an outstanding rookie season averaging 16.1 yards per reception and scoring 5 touchdowns. This one was mostly just luck and Gordon.

Ezekiel Elliott (DAL, 2016) 4th overall

2015 record: 4-12
2016 record: 13-3 (+9 games)
Primary Cause of Jump: Dak Prescott

Everyone thinks Zeke was SO important to the Cowboys’ ascension and that they wouldn’t have had any success without him. Look, Ezekiel Elliott, like a lot of these guys, is a good player, maybe even a great one like Tomlinson, but the reason the Cowboys improved as much as they did has little to do with Elliott himself and everything to do with the reasons they were able to draft him. The 2015 Cowboys went 4-12, and while they were an imperfect team to be sure, they were mostly an injured team, most prominently at the quarterback position. Tony Romo led this team to 3 wins in 4 games and then got hurt, never to be heard from again. Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore, and Brandon Weeden are terrible, and their one combined win came in a 19-16 barn-burner against Washington.

The Cowboys have built one of, if not the best offensive lines in football and even in 2015 Darren McFadden managed to rip off over 1,000 yards at over 4.6 yards per carry while adding over 300 receiving yards. Elliott would average 5.1 yards per carry, but the big boost to the offense was compensatory 4th-round selection Dak Prescott, who had a sensational rookie year as a stabilizing force at quarterback. Just providing average performance would have been a quantum leap over Cassel and company, but Prescott was excellent, ranking 3rd in DVOA. If the Cowboys would have played 2016 with the replacement-level garbage they threw out there last season, Elliott would not have mattered a bit. Prescott made the entire team work, and was almost certainly the most valuable player taken in the entire draft.

Conclusion

This is such a dumb way to look at things. The year before the Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers the Packers went 10-6. The very next season they went 4-12. Aaron Rodgers, who barely even played, did not cost them 6 games. Most of the swings about can be attributed to 1,000 other things, and just taking out the huge leaps from Brees, Prescott, and Not-Leaf make the +5 game average look much more reasonable. The effects of running backs will be negligible the vast majority of the time, and for every Jamal Lewis, who was instrumental in the success of the Raven offense, there are hundreds of Cedric Bensons.

Please, NFL.com, please do not torture numbers this way again. When you torture numbers, you torture your readers.