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Higher Education: Forte is worst among third-down backs

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

 

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In a continuation of the recent "Higher Education" series, in which we looked at how rookies would best fit their new teams, we thought it might be interesting to take a look at certain performances and rankings from the 2010 season that go a bit outside the box. With the help of statistics from Football Outsiders, we'll be looking at different metrics that will hopefully illuminate the game in different ways.

In the second installment, we'll be talking about the 10 least-efficient third-down running backs, based on FO's DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric. Sunday, we talked up the 10 best third-down backs in the league, so it's time to give you the names of the backs you'd least want to have carrying the ball in those crucial situations. There are instances when a back's offensive line factors heavily into his third-down inefficiency, and when that's the case to an extreme degree, we'll make that clear.

FO's efficiency metrics are opponent-adjusted and based on every play in a season. DVOA is one of the two primary stats; DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) will be discussed in future installments. The quick way to differentiate the two stats is to think of DVOA as a percentage reflecting value above average on a per-play basis; and DYAR as a point value that indicates the cumulative value over average based on every play.

When dealing with stats that feature small sample sizes, it's better to use DVOA, because of the per-play dynamic. So, here are the 10 worst backs on third down with a minimum of 15 third-down carries. We've also included the Success Rate of each back, which indicates the percentage of plays in which a back gained the necessary yardage for a first-down conversion on third down. In all cases, we've thrown in the rare fourth-down carries as well.

As you will see, our primary offender is a problem in every category.

Matt Forte, Chicago Bears — minus-83.7 percent DVOA (16 carries, 10 yards, 13 percent Success Rate)

Yes, the Bears' offensive line blocked about as well as a box of wet Kleenex in the 2010 season, but that wasn't the entire reason for Forte's third-down debacles. If you back through the years, he's never been a great third-down back — he was about league average in 2008 (2.6 percent DVOA), fell off a cliff in 2009 (minus-30.6 percent DVOA), and combined with some truly terrible blocking in 2010 to win the booby prize. This is how bad it got for Forte, and this stat explains his horrible Success Rate: On his seven third-and-1 opportunities in 2010, he converted just one of them and gained a total of minus-1 yards on all seven. That's some pretty historic futility right there.

Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks — minus-53.7 percent DVOA (15 carries, 21 yards, 27 percent Success Rate)

Lynch is seen as a bruiser, but watching him on short-yardage run after short-yardage run brings a different kind of player to the fore — he generally needs help to bust out of first contact at the line, which is why he had 11 instances of third-and-1 or third-and-2 last season, and converted just five of them. For the record, Lynch's unforgettable 67-yard touchdown run against the Saints in the wild-card round of the playoffs came on second down, and second down was Lynch's most efficient down in 2010.

Correll Buckhalter, Denver Broncos — minus-38.8 percent DVOA (15 carries, 27 yards, 20 percent Success Rate)

Another guy thought of a short-yardage specialist, but the numbers don't match up. In 2010, the six-foot, 223-pound Buckhalter converted just two of his 14 third-down opportunities. Of course, what the Broncos were doing handing off to him on third-and 17 against the Jets or third-and-23 against the Ravens is anybody's guess. Yet another reason Josh McDaniels is now in St. Louis, to be sure.

Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills — minus-36.2 percentDVOA (19 carries, 69 yards, 42 percent Success Rate)

Jackson was the undrafted player who beat out two first-round picks — the aforementioned Mr. Lynch (who was traded to Seattle) and C.J. Spiller (who is still finding his way) to become the Bills' bell-cow back. However, Jackson was a primary reason that the Bills ranked 27th in DVOA in third-and-short situations; he converted just five of his nine opportunities from third-and-three and shorter.

Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins — minus-33.6 percent DVOA (20 carries, 61 yards, 30 percent Success Rate)You may remember that Miami's Lousaka Polite was one of the best third-down backs in the league last year, with a special gift for converting third-and-1 situations. Brown couldn't have been more prominent in the other direction, and we're at a loss to explain why Brown got four more third-down carries than did Polite when Brown couldn't do anything on that particular down. It seems at times that certain coaches either don't pay attention to down effectiveness, or know the numbers and ignore their meanings

Thomas Jones, Kansas City Chiefs — minus-30.9 percent DVOA (19 carries, 39 yards, 42 percent Success Rate)

Referring again to Sunday's article, you may wonder why Jones got 245 total carries to Jamaal Charles' 230 when Charles was so much more effective on every down. You may also wonder why Jones got more carries than Charles on first down (140 to 108) when Charles was so much more effective there (54.8 percent DVOA to Jones' minus-4.1 percent), and why Charles actually got MORE third-down carries (30 to Jones' 19) if Jones wasn't the kind of every-down back deserving of more carries, as the Chiefs' staff sometimes opined. After studying all the angles, parameters, and possibilities, your guess is still as good as ours. Jamaal Charles could be the next Chris Johnson, and the only thing stopping him is his own coaching staff. It makes no sense.

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Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams — minus-30.7 percent DVOA (27 carries, 59 yards, 37 percent Success Rate)

Jackson's been a stud back on some very bad teams, but there may be some truth to the notion that he's starting to wear down — with a quarterback that finally game defenses something to focus on and an improved offensive line, Jackson put up worse metrics on every down from a 2009 season in which the Rams went 1-15.

Cedric Benson, Cincinnati Bengals — minus-20.9 percent DVOA (24 carries, 58 yards, 54 percent Success Rate)

Not really a big surprise here; Benson has always been a boom-and-bust back. It just so happened as the Bengals' offense splintered in different directions and nobody seems on the same page, his overall metrics got worse. It will be interesting to see if he can rebound with an offense that does have some more impressive newer moving parts.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars — minus-19.0 percent DVOA (33 carries, 104 yards, 48 percent Success Rate)

Of all the names on this list, Pocket Hercules was the real surprise; after all, he's been known as one of the NFL's few legit every-down backs for years. He was effective on first and second down in 2010, which was the exact inverse of 2009, when his best down was third down by far. But in 2008, it was another switchup — negative third-down metrics again. Maybe he's the Bret Saberhagen of third-down running backs, and we just have to wait for the good stuff every other season. 2011 will tell the tale.

Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants — minus-15.3 percent DVOA (22 carries, 61 yards, 55 percent Success Rate)

For all of teammate Brandon Jacobs' third-down and short-yardage issues in recent years, he actually had a better third-down DVOA than Bradshaw's (minus-14.4 percent) though  he did so on just six carries. Perhaps that's the biggest indictment of Jacobs; that Bradshaw is put in a situation that doesn't suit him best. Bradshaw did put up a solid series of third-down performances in 2009 (36.4 percent DVOA and a 54 percent Success Rate), but consistency at that down seems to be a tough order for the G-Men these days.

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