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

9/29/2008 - NFL

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.