Commentary

Chargers' Sproles barely eludes infamy

Originally Published: January 5, 2009
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders

It seems impossible, but the player who did the most to improve his stock among football fans this weekend did arguably the single worst thing a running back can do with the pigskin in his hands.

Everyone knows that fumbles are bad. Longtime readers of Football Outsiders know that fumbling the ball, even if you end up recovering it, is a bad sign because fumble recovery isn't a skill -- that is to say, there's no team year-to-year which recovers a consistently high or low percentage of the balls that hit the ground.

The idea of how much a fumble hurts a team, though, is murky because we never know how a drive might've turned out. A fumble at the opposition's 40-yard line hurts, but because we don't actually see how that drive would have ended without the fumble, we can't say that the fumble prevented a touchdown.

It's with this talk of fumbles that we bring up Chargers running back Darren Sproles, who emerged on the national scene with a series of third-down conversions and an overtime touchdown run to push the Chargers into the divisional playoffs. His contributions in the running game accrued 26 DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement), the second-highest total of the week.

Darren Sproles highlights

NFL.com Video

Chargers RB Darren Sproles amasses 328 total yards in a 23-17 overtime win over the Colts.

In the receiving game, though? Sproles picked up -28 DYAR, the second-worst total of any player, giving him a total of -2 DYAR on the day. The reason why wasn't the five catches he had on 10 attempts, a mediocre total for a receiver. It wasn't that only two of his catches went for first downs. He still would've been an above-average player on the day … if it weren't for the fact that he fumbled on the Colts' 1.

Sproles' catch and run was on second down. If Sproles hadn't scored on the play, the Chargers would have had two chances to score from the 1-foot line. Without getting too deep into the probability that the Chargers would or would not score on those two plays, it's pretty easy to figure that there's an extremely significant chance of the Chargers kicking a field goal, if not scoring a touchdown.

Of course, any score would've changed the game. The Chargers would have been kicking on their final drive in regulation to take the lead, not tie. They wouldn't have needed to win the overtime coin toss and drive down the field. Sproles, ironically, wouldn't have etched his name in Chargers history with a run that probably earned him millions of dollars in his future trip to the free-agent market.

As the Chargers basked in success, Sproles' prior transgression was forgotten by seemingly everyone except the game recap and our computers. Had the Chargers ended up losing the game, everyone would have remembered Sproles snatching disappointment from a sure touchdown. Ask Earnest Byner if fans forget that easily.

Here are the rest of the best and worst players of wild-card weekend, according to the Football Outsiders DYAR statistics.

Quarterbacks
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
1.
Donovan McNabb PHI
23/34
300
1
1
134
134
0
386
McNabb gets some of the credit for Brian Westbrook running through the Vikings' secondary en route to a 71-yard touchdown, but then again, it's not as if Westbrook deserves all the credit, either, considering how fantastic the Eagles' offensive line was on that play. In a week in which no quarterback was truly impressive, McNabb (4-of-8 on third down in the second half) was the quarterback of the week.
2.
Peyton Manning IND
25/42
310
1
0
91
91
0
354
In the first game between these teams, the Chargers had some success shifting their defensive linemen around before the snap to create confusion among both the offensive line and Manning. It worked well enough that they instituted it throughout the entire defense on Saturday. If teams can hold Manning to 3-of-11 on third and fourth downs, they might be willing to sacrifice a long touchdown each game.
3.
Joe Flacco BAL
9/23
135
0
0
59
41
18
235
Flacco ran only three times for 9 yards, but those carries went for two first downs and a touchdown. That mitigates some of the issues he had in the passing game, particularly with his deep ball. Flacco had five incompletions of 15 yards or more, and while you're never going to complete all those passes, a couple of them should have been huge gains.
4.
Chad Pennington MIA
25/38
252
1
4
56
56
0
284
How is a guy who threw four interceptions ahead of Kurt Warner? Simple: One was playing against the Falcons, and the other was playing against the Ravens. Pennington actually had a streak in which he completed eight consecutive passes for 61 yards, albeit against a prevent defense. Then he ran into Ed Reed.
5.
Kurt Warner ARI
19/32
271
2
1
56
53
3
242
Absolutely a tale of two halves. In the first half, Warner completed only six of his 15 passes. Of course, three of those passes went for 30 yards or more, and although he threw a pick, he also had two touchdowns. In the second half, Warner was cool and efficient, going 13-of-17 for 119 yards. Although our system doesn't realize it, Warner's play-action fake on his final pass was so good that Keith Brooking's still looking for the ball.
6.
Tarvaris Jackson MIN
15/35
164
0
1
15
5
10
221
It's hard to beat the Eagles if you can't make them pay for blitzing you. Jackson was 0-of-6 on passes of 15 yards or more. He also had a string in the fourth quarter of seven consecutive incomplete passes.
7.
Philip Rivers SD
20/35
217
0
1
-3
-7
4
203
Crazy directional split: Rivers was 5-of-15 for 41 yards on short throws to the right side, and 8-of-9 for 87 yards on short throws to the left.
8.
Matt Ryan ATL
26/40
199
2
2
-13
4
-17
197
Ryan's day was like the "Kill Bill" scene in which Lucy Liu asks Uma Thurman if she really thought it would be that easy. For a minute there, Ryan really did. Three turnovers later against a defense that had seemingly fallen asleep in December, the bloom is somewhat off his rose. He might have benefited some from throwing more to his tight ends: Justin Peelle and Marcus Pollard were 5-for-5 on the day. This brings up the question: When did Marcus Pollard sign with Atlanta?
Five most valuable running backs
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Chester Taylor MIN
48
0
36
0
27
12
15
115
Taylor had the best receiving DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) of any running back in the league on third down this season, and he converted the only third down he faced in the passing game on Sunday, also adding an 11-yard run on third-and-11 early in the game.
2.
Adrian Peterson MIN
83
2
0
0
25
29
-4
113
Some of that has to do with AP's work on first down. He didn't have a single carry for more than 6 yards, and gained 2 yards or less eight out of 11 times. Essentially, this is what you get with a 40-yard touchdown run and a 3-yard dive against a very good run defense. Peterson did precious little else on the day, short of not fumbling.
3.
Edgerrin James ARI
73
0
9
0
24
16
8
102
If you'd bet six weeks ago that the Cardinals would hand the ball off to James on the first three plays of their wild-card game, you could've won a lot of money. Interestingly enough, the Cardinals didn't run the ball once on third down the entire game; their only rush on third down was a Warner scramble.
4.
LaDainian Tomlinson SD
25
1
0
0
15
20
-5
48
Tomlinson had only five carries and one target in the passing game, but he picked up two first downs and a touchdown in the process.
5.
Willis McGahee BAL
62
0
9
0
13
8
5
52
His 48-yard run against the Dolphins was the longest rush of the week.
Least valuable running back
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Le'Ron McClain BAL
80
1
0
0
-6
0
-6
58
The third-down machine didn't get a single carry on third down against the Dolphins, and his fumble gave the Dolphins their best field position of the day.
Five most valuable wide receivers and tight ends
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
1.
Antonio Gates SD
8
9
87
10.9
0
29
111
The fact that the Colts devoted much of their coverage to shutting down Vincent Jackson should be a sign of how highly Jackson's performance is viewed around the league. Gates apparently took it as a sign that he needed to remind people that he's still on the road to a Hall of Fame career, as he picked up three key first downs in the fourth quarter and overtime. He also had 49 yards after catch.
2.
Jason Avant PHI
5
6
47
9.4
0
25
74
Avant's day was simple but effective, as he picked up three first downs in the second half, highlighted by an absolutely huge first down on third-and-11 from the Eagles' 4-yard line.
3.
Roddy White ATL
11
16
84
7.6
1
25
135
No one else was thrown the ball more than 11 times this weekend, and although White had an egregious drop in the second quarter, it was during a streak in which he otherwise caught seven passes in a row. White picked up eight of Atlanta's 20 first downs.
4.
Anthony Gonzalez IND
6
9
97
16.2
0
21
88
In the regular-season matchup, Gonzalez abused Antoine Cason in the slot before the Chargers gave Cason help over the top. On Saturday, Gonzalez caught the first six passes thrown to him for 97 yards. Then the Chargers gave Cason help again, and Gonzalez had three incomplete passes the rest of the way.
5.
Reggie Wayne IND
4
11
129
32.2
1
17
95
Each of Wayne's completions went for a first down. Although 71 of his yards came on what some might consider to be a cheap or fluky play, Wayne deserves some applause for catching the ball and not dropping it out of excitement, a move that you couldn't have blamed him for but would have also cost Indy a touchdown in the process.
Least valuable wide receiver or tight end
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
5.
Mark Clayton BAL
2
8
16
8.0
0
-34
2
Clayton caught only two of the eight passes thrown to him, mustering a lone first down.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.

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