Alfred Morris and Stevan Ridley both played for high-powered offenses last year that gained large chunks of yards through the air (Washington and New England were 3rd and 4th in net yards per pass in 2013), yet neither was an integral part of the passing game as a receiver. Both had fewer than 100 yards receiving on the year, and averaged less than a reception per game.
In older backs, decline in participation in the passing game can be an indicator that they are slowing down, but is it a bad sign for a young back to be little used as a receiver? To examine, I looked at all backs since 1970 that had at least 1,200 yards from scrimmage in a season by age 25, and sorted by the percentage of yards that came from rushes. To show just how extreme both Morris and Ridley were in their usage as runners vs. receivers, consider that both are in the top five (among the 296 running back seasons examined) in percentage of total yards that came from rushing yards.
Here are the twenty most extreme (plus Ridley and Morris):
Ridley and Morris are 4th and 5th on the list, nestled between three Earl Campbell seasons and a young Eddie George. Generally speaking, the young backs on this list fit a certain type–big, bruising backs that could pound it between the tackles and were not likely to streak past someone if split out of the backfield.
To test whether there is any concern over a young back getting a small percentage of yards from receiving, I looked at the following year. Of course, we also want to compare this to the average–so to do so, I used every back by age 25 in the group who had between 74% and 78% of the yards from rushing attempts (the group average is 76%).
Here is a summary of the year in question and the following year for each group:
Rush Heavy Group: 15.3 games, 1497 rush yards, 102 receiving yards, 10.7 TD in year 1; 14.6 games, 1202 rush yards, 156 receiving yards, 8.5 TD in year 2
Control Group: 15.2 games, 1209 rush yards, 381 receiving yards, 9.8 TD in year 1; 13.0 games, 952 rush yards, 320 receiving yards, 8.1 TD in year 2
No indication that having a rush heavy back leads to any bigger drop off. In fact, the control group missed more games the following season (if we exclude Robert Edwards and Domanick Williams, the average games played is still 13.5). The yards per game for each group was similar in year one, and the dropoff in yards per game was likewise similar the following season. Don’t expect either of these backs to suddenly morph into Marshall Faulk; while some regression toward the league average in rush/receiving splits occurred, the group tended to still be rush heavy. Only five backs in the group exceeded 250 receiving yards the following year, while almost half (9) ended the next season with less than 100 yards receiving.
Of course, both of these backs have something that we cannot quantify here–coaches with reputations for shenanigans (or Shanahan-igans) when it comes to running backs. In Shanahan’s case, it is deserved if the reputation is that he will ride backs until the wheels fall off, but probably not if it is that he will constantly rotate–so long as he has a back he likes. Terrell Davis was the workhorse for several years; when he got injured, he filled in with backups who had big years. Portis was a stud, until he wanted more money than Shanahan wanted to pay for a back and got traded. Usually, when Shanahan moves on, it is because of injury or off the field issues such as the desire for a bigger contract–Reuben Droughns was allowed to move on, and Travis Henry was a headache. Those issues aren’t present for Morris, who is cost controlled for several years and is someone that any coach would want in the locker room.
Stevan Ridley had 55.4% of the Patriots rushes last year, as Belichick altered his usage from game to game based on opponent and the flow of the game, though Ridley was almost always the leading rusher. The opportunity is there for increased usage in the passing game, with Danny Woodhead’s production gone, though most expect Shane Vereen to garner most of that role. Still, while Belichick has the reputation for using his backs in a variety of ways, Ridley should have plenty of chances to build on last year with the change in personnel in New England.
The most likely source of regression for these two is touchdowns, where we know that number is highly variable and volatile. The other rush heavy younger backs saw their touchdown totals fall from 0.7 TDs per game back toward the league average for a starter, with .58 touchdowns per game the next year.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]
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