Last year, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III were the starting quarterbacks for two of the largest turnarounds in rushing yards for a team in the last decade. Both teams were among the leaders in utilizing read option plays, and using the quarterback as a weapon to threaten the defense in the ground game.
While they were two of the most extreme examples, it turns out that rookie quarterbacks have played a large role in the biggest jumps in team rushing yard totals from year to year. I wanted to look at the largest spikes in rushing yards over the last decade, to see what the most common threads are as we begin projecting for next year.
I found the 25 largest team rushing yard increases (2003-2012 seasons), and then looked at how frequently the team had changes at each offensive position and at head coach. By far the most frequent change was at the quarterback position, where 80% of the teams had a different main starter at QB than the previous season. This was either through injury return (Michael Vick, twice), or a new starter for the franchise. Among those new quarterbacks were nine teams featuring a rookie starter. Some of those rookies were runners (Griffin, Wilson, Young, Newton) and some were just part of offenses that relied heavily on the ground game (Boller, Sanchez, Flacco, Roethlisberger, Ryan).
To put that in perspective, keep in mind that only 16 rookie quarterbacks started 12 or more games in the last decade. Over half of them ended up on teams that showed the highest rushing yards increases from the previous year. The nine teams with rookie quarterbacks on the list averaged an improvement of 810 rushing yards over the previous season. 257 yards of that difference came directly from increased rushing yards by the quarterback, so 553 yards of the improvement were from the running back position.
Some of this increase is the rookie quarterback as runners, some is from the team becoming more reliant on the running game to ease in the quarterback, and some of it is because the team improved and played with the lead more often, and some of that can be attributed to better quarterback play. As I noted last year, 6 of the last 9 rookie quarterbacks to start opening day played for teams that eventually reached the playoffs. We can now add 3 of the 5 rookies last year (Wilson, Griffin, and Luck).
Here are all the positions (and head coach) and percentage of starting spots where personnel was changed compared to the previous year.
This is data mining, with a small sample size of twenty-five teams, but the results do seem somewhat intuitive. Among the offensive line positions, the most frequent change was at right tackle, then running back and at right guard. Most teams tend to be right-handed in the running game, and if a team was struggling and had upside to improve, a change in that portion of the line provided the most opportunity. Head coaches tended to be all over the place, ranking near wide receivers and tight ends in percentage of change.
Which teams fit the profile of the teams that saw large increases? Kansas City has added a new quarterback (Smith), and used the first overall pick on tackle Eric Fisher, who is slated to start at right tackle. Jamaal Charles is still there and is capable of huge numbers. The Chiefs should be improved over their win/loss record a year ago, and remember that they didn’t even have a lead until over half the season was done. Of course, Kansas City was one of the most run heavy teams once we account for situation, and now Andy Reid is head coach, a play caller who tends toward the opposite extreme. On balance, though, I still think Kansas City has room to improve with personnel and coaching.
Oakland will be going to either Matt Flynn or rookie Tyler Wilson. Darren McFadden has been oft-injured, but the upside is there if he stays healthy. Buffalo and the Jets are the other teams that seem most likely to start a rookie quarterback for a substantial amount of games. C.J. Spiller has already been amazing, but we have also seen running quarterbacks like E.J. Manuel open up more holes for running backs. With a few more touches for Spiller, and increased rushing from the QB position, the Bills are a prime candidate. The Jets acquired Chris Ivory at running back, who is a far more dynamic runner than Shonn Greene. Pass blocking was a reason that Ivory didn’t play as often in New Orleans, but with the Jets and potentially playing with a rookie QB, Ivory can be unleashed in a run heavy offense.
Philadelphia had half a season of the largely immobile Nick Foles, and with Chip Kelly now in as head coach, and the potential for utilizing Vick out of more spread option, the potential for improvement is there. Philadelphia also had offensive line issues and drafted Lane Johnson, and LeSean McCoy returns after missing games with injury last year. I would look for the Eagles to be a prime candidate to be among the leaders in team rushing yards in 2013.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]