Commentary

Today's boom-or-bust backs not in Sanders' league

Originally Published: September 29, 2008
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders.com

Most football columns don't start with a baseball analogy, but we've never been particularly conventional at Football Outsiders, so there's no reason to start now. Imagine for a moment, Mets fans, if Damion Easley's walk with two outs in the ninth on Sunday had earned the team three more outs to play with in order to save its season. Wouldn't that have been useful?

That's what a first down amounts to, and it's why we're so insistent about emphasizing the importance of the first down in our material. A team acquiring a first down gets closer to scoring a touchdown; it also keeps the ball away from the other team for a longer period of time, all but preventing it from scoring points. Although scoring a touchdown is obviously preferable to merely picking up a first down, a team's ability to get those extra "outs" provides a significant benefit to a team dependent upon the long play.

That's led to a bit of a backlash against the idea that a metric like Defense-Adjusted Yards Over Replacement (DYAR) underrates boom-or-bust runners like Reggie Bush, Ryan Grant or Barry Sanders, with the thought being that their big-play ability makes up for their inability to pick up consistent yardage and move the chains. It's also led to discussions about Sanders being a player who is frowned upon by context-based systems like DYAR.

Of course, the issue isn't that booms aren't valuable plays. It's that, to torture an already-dated reference, being the "Boom King" means you have to actually produce those booms on a regular basis to stay valuable. In Week 4, the inability of Grant and Bush to pick up effective levels of yardage hurt their teams dramatically. The ineffectiveness of Bush (10 carries for 31 yards; five catches for an astounding 7 yards) forced Saints QB Drew Brees into repeated third-and-10s. We'll discuss Grant later, as he actually rated out as a worse performer than Bush on the day.

As an aside, Sanders is a player whom a system like DYAR respects and appreciates because of his consistent ability to pick up huge chunks of yardage; he ranked first in the league in DYAR in 1996 and second in 1997. Comparing all boom-or-bust runners to Sanders, who gained 100 yards in 14 consecutive games in 1997, is like comparing every wide receiver who runs a slow 40 at the NFL combine to Jerry Rice. Just because one guy can get away with it doesn't mean that everyone can.

No one doubts that boom-or-bust players are incredibly exciting to watch, and their booms help their teams win games. Players who are more prone to getting consistent chunks of yardage along with the occasional huge play, though, push their teams toward wins more frequently. Sometimes, slow and steady actually does win the race.

As a note, opponent adjustments are included in our statistics for the first time this week, at 40 percent strength. This sort of regression takes into account the fact that, to torture another already-dated reference, teams might not be who we think they are.

Quarterbacks
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
1.
Matt Schaub HOU
29/38
307
3
0
200
214
-14
456
In the fourth-quarter drive that led to Houston's game-tying field goal against the Jaguars, Schaub threw almost entirely passes over the middle, highlighted by a huge completion to Andre Johnson that got the Texans in field goal range. It's a shame that Schaub never got a chance to touch the ball in overtime.
2.
Jake Delhomme CAR
20/29
294
2
0
174
174
0
386
Delhomme strangely had an effective day despite converting only three of eight third downs through the air. The way to overcome that is to complete four passes for 15 or more yards on first down, and follow that up with six plays of 12 yards or more on second down, including touchdown passes of 36 and 56 yards.
3.
Drew Brees NO
23/35
365
3
1
145
145
0
381
Brees might have topped Delhomme had Michael Lewis (the 49ers safety, not the author of "Moneyball") not gotten his helmet on a ball on the 1-inch line, forcing Olaniyi "Ruby" Sobomehin to fumble.
4.
Brett Favre NYJ
24/34
289
6
1
143
143
0
400
How could Favre possibly be fourth despite throwing six touchdown passes? First, an ugly interception on third-and-1 in a 0-0 game matters, more than any single one of the three touchdowns Favre threw late in the game with a three-score lead. Those adjustments for the level of lead bring down his numbers some. He also had the distinct pleasure of playing the Cardinals' defense without elite safety Adrian Wilson; DYAR knows that the defense is bad even with Wilson in there. With all that being said, after the first quarter, Favre put up an absurd 184 DYAR.
5.
David Garrard JAC
23/32
236
1
0
127
115
12
384
Finally, the old Garrard returns! In addition to throwing a touchdown pass to Matt Jones, Garrard had back-to-back completions of 20-plus yards in overtime, setting up the game-winning field goal.
6.
Tony Romo DAL
28/47
305
3
1
127
123
4
434
The most interesting coverage we saw all week baited Romo into throwing his interception. The Redskins lined safety Chris Horton up in the middle of the field, while playing 10 yards off speedy Cowboys third receiver Miles Austin. At the snap, while the Redskins cornerback maintained his cushion, Horton sprinted over to Austin's side to get underneath his pattern. By the time Romo saw that Austin was open and threw the ball, Horton had made it over and snatched an easy pick. Oh, and since he doesn't show up in the receivers section, Terrell Owens was targeted or carried 21 times in Week 4. Those 21 plays earned the Cowboys -6 DYAR.
7.
Jason Campbell WAS
20/31
231
2
0
126
125
1
351
Campbell had another touchdown taken back because of a Casey Rabach mistake, traveling downfield to try to block for a scrambling Campbell away from the play. Campbell continues to look impressive, standing tall in the pocket despite a furious Cowboys rush and showing off his fantastic arm strength on a 44-yard heave to Santana Moss (who then proceeded to gain 9 yards on the ground to make it a 53-yard play) despite throwing almost in midair.
8.
Gus Frerotte MIN
25/43
266
0
1
67
67
0
322
This is pretty much what the Vikings could have hoped for from Gus Frerotte; he averaged nearly 6.2 yards per attempt. The one thing from the "game manager" playbook that Frerotte didn't do? Hold on to the ball. Frerotte fumbled a snap and threw an interception on his final pass. Note the huge drop in DYAR from seventh to eighth -- it seems weird Frerotte would be this high, but he's closer to 13th than seventh.
9.
Kerry Collins TEN
18/35
199
0
0
52
49
2
274
One person Collins might want to avoid is Justin McCareins, who was 3-for-10 in catching targeted passes this week.
10.
Jay Cutler DEN
29/48
361
1
2
39
37
2
340
The league's most dynamic combination through three weeks sputtered out in Week 4. Despite hooking up with Brandon Marshall for another touchdown, Cutler's throws to the Broncos wide receiver earned -39 DYAR by virtue of the two interceptions Cutler threw on passes intended for Marshall.
11.
Trent Green STL
17/32
236
0
1
19
19
0
199
We are just happy he made it through the game in one piece.
12.
Donovan McNabb PHI
25/41
262
1
1
15
28
-13
246
McNabb showed great velocity on his throws, but was victimized by drops and poor protection. Kevin Curtis can't come back soon enough.
13.
Damon Huard KC
21/28
160
1
0
10
10
0
159
There were points during this game where Damon Huard had thrown for 41 yards on 12 attempts (3.4 yards per attempt) and 67 yards on 19 attempts (3.5 YPA). Getting "consistent yardage" does not mean picking up under 4 yards a passing attempt. We can say that much.
14.
Kurt Warner ARI
41/57
472
2
3
6
6
0
359
In a fantasy football league in which you got points only for scoring in the fourth quarter of games in which you were down by two or more touchdowns, Kurt Warner would be the No. 1 pick. It would also help if you weren't punished for turning the ball over.
15.
Derek Anderson CLE
15/24
138
1
1
-7
12
-19
121
Bengals linemen complained after the game that they were distracted by Brady Quinn breathing down Anderson's neck. An aborted snap and failed scramble inside the Bengals' 5 hurt Anderson's overall numbers.
16.
Trent Edwards BUF
15/25
197
1
1
-20
-22
2
116
He just wins, but Edwards didn't look great against St. Louis, throwing a number of passes that were close to being intercepted. If you want that game manager business card, you can't do that.
17.
Matt Ryan ATL
21/41
158
0
0
-33
-37
4
177
18.
Philip Rivers SD
14/25
176
1
2
-36
-26
-10
110
Speaking of boom-or-bust, Rivers threw eight passes toward Vincent Jackson. Three were complete, with each picking up a first down. The other four were incompletions, and Rivers topped it off with a third-quarter interception. Jackson doesn't even have a hobbled Nnamdi Asomugha to blame.
19.
JaMarcus Russell OAK
22/37
277
1
1
-44
-38
-6
181
20.
Aaron Rodgers GB
15/27
163
2
3
-54
-57
3
83
Rodgers is victimized here when he didn't actually play that poorly; his first interception hit Brandon Jackson in the hands and bounced right to a Buccaneers player, while his third was thrown while he was in the midst of being leveled.
21.
Brian Griese TB
15/30
149
1
3
-77
-81
3
57
22.
J.T. O'Sullivan SF
18/36
257
1
2
-77
-73
-5
111
O'Sullivan's best play doesn't show up in his official stats, as it was a 43-yard pass thrown from his own 3-yard line that Arnaz Battle drew a pass interference penalty on. If you can think of any reason why the NFL shouldn't award pass interference yardage to the players involved, we'd love to hear it.
23.
Kyle Orton CHI
18/33
199
3
2
-103
-103
0
50
24.
Ryan Fitzpatrick CIN
21/35
156
1
3
-121
-135
15
64
Fortunately for Ryan Fitzpatrick, he has an Ivy League education to fall back on. Unfortunately for Ryan Fitzpatrick, he did not have that education to cushion his blow on Sunday, when he was sacked three times and threw three picks.
Five most valuable running backs
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Steven Jackson STL
110
1
78
0
46
19
28
201
Wouldn't it be cool if Jackson had run over with the game ball after his touchdown and handed it to the deposed Marc Bulger? Actually, wouldn't it be cool if Steven Jackson got to play on a real football team? With blockers and everything?
2.
Steve Slaton HOU
33
0
83
1
36
-4
41
135
Slaton was awesome as a receiver, picking up four first downs through the air and two more on the ground. He doesn't have breakaway speed, but Slaton is agile enough to get in and out of cuts and jukes very quickly.
3.
Michael Bush OAK
48
0
80
0
33
-6
39
154
Bush was 2-for-2 running successfully to the left side. Unfortunately, he was 2-of-8 on the right side.
4.
Earnest Graham TB
111
1
3
0
32
33
-1
138
It's surprising Graham is splitting time with Warrick Dunn considering how absolutely finished Dunn looked after last season. Either way, Graham's getting the bulk of the carries and finished off a long drive with a big run and then a 1-yard plunge. Fantasy owners will just want to hope the pendulum shifts further toward Graham as the season goes along.
5.
Edgerrin James ARI
29
2
37
0
31
20
11
123
James was having a pretty mundane day until his final three carries, when he picked up a first down and two short-yardage touchdowns. Suitably chastened, the fantasy gods benched James on the third score and gave his carry to Tim Hightower.
Least valuable running back
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Ryan Grant GB
20
0
-4
0
-62
-41
-21
-38
Grant's carry line for the day: 6, 3, 0, 8, 0, 1, 2, 5, 2, -6, -1, 0, -2, 0, -2. Does this sound like a player having a very good day? Grant didn't have a run from the second quarter on that was successful, and as the game went along, his usage declined from nine carries in the first quarter to just one in the fourth.
Five most valuable wide receivers and tight ends
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
1.
Steve Breaston ARI
9
10
122
13.6
0
73
179
Even when you factor in the 56-35 score, Breaston was impressive. Of his nine catches, eight went for first downs, while a ninth first down came from a pass interference penalty.
2.
Muhsin Muhammad CAR
8
10
147
18.4
1
71
171
He may be ancient, but Muhammad had seven plays on which he gained more than 14 yards. All these passes resulted in first downs, the last of which earned Moose a touchdown.
3.
Lance Moore NO
7
10
101
14.4
2
56
144
Here's a little bit of closure on the Matt Millen era: Millen spent four first-round picks on wide receivers. When Marques Colston returns from his injury, the Saints could very well be starting a seventh-round pick and an undrafted free agent (Moore). And this team's passing offense actually works!
4.
Arnaz Battle SF
7
11
120
17.1
0
55
147
Battle is the perfect fit in the Mike Furrey role for San Francisco's offense, but he's just now gaining the trust of his quarterback and coaching staff. He can also get downfield, as evidenced by the 43-yard pass interference call he drew in the fourth.
5.
Laveranues Coles NYJ
8
12
105
13.1
3
51
158
Why fifth and not first? Coles was the focus of three incomplete passes to start the game, including a terrible interception by Favre. From there, he went on a touchdown spree.
Least valuable wide receiver or tight end
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
1.
Bryant Johnson SF
0
4
0
0.0
0
-30
-17
Johnson was the subject of a failed third-down attempt along with a interception inside the Saints' 10. He was targeted only four times, but it was the context of his failures that made him the least valuable receiver of the week.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.