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Against “Ground and Pound” Sentimentality

[ 221 ] January 13, 2013 |

In the wildcard thread, in the course of explaining why you can’t build a winning NFL team around a running game, I reiterated in passing that the Browns were idiots to trade up to take a running back with a top-3 pick. Given that the Browns, in exchange for the additional draft picks and $5+ million this year received replacement-level running, had another terrible year, and everyone responsible for picking Richardson has been fired, I didn’t think this would be terribly controversial. But because Brien Jackson, while sabermetrically inclined in baseball, is apparently a Murray Chass-style sentimentalist in football it was:

Somebody else would have traded up to get him at #3.

If the Browns had come out of the draft with Richardson AND Wilson, I think we’d have a pretty damn different outlook on their future.

[...]

He was “low impact” for a guy who was injured all year and had a shit quarterback. Also, tell the Ravens, Vikings, or Texans that running back is a “low impact” position.

To deal with the silly argument first, it may be true that somebody else would have traded up to trade Trent Richardson, but I trust that the irrelevance of this question is obvious. (“If the Jets didn’t trade for Tebow, the Jaguars would have! If Dave Littlefield didn’t trade for Matt Morris Bill Bavasi might have!”) The question is would a competently run organization not merely waste a top-3 pick on a running back but waste additional draft choices for the privilege? I would submit that the answer is quite clearly “no.” Would Bill Belichick make that move? Sure, right after he resigned to be Charlie Weis’s defensive coordinator.

Anyway, there are two reasons that the pick doesn’t make any sense, and both are important to an understanding of contemporary football. First, running backs are inherently unpredictable and inconsistent. To quote Barnwell again, “Of the 14 running backs who have been taken in the top five since 1990, only a handful have delivered on their promise. Most have flashes of brilliance mixed with injuries, which is exactly what you get from guys like Jerome Harrison, who cost nothing.”  Brien is right that Richardson was injured in the second half and is capable of better, but that’s the point — because of the pounding they sustain the performance and availability running backs varies wildly. There’s no reliable way of identifying elite runners, and even those who reach that level tend not to sustain it.

And yes, yes, Tom Brady went in the 6th round — but this is mentioned so often because it’s the exception.   The best QBs in the league — the Mannings, Rodgers, Griffin III, Luck, Ryan, Roethlisberger — are generally first round picks. This isn’t at all true of running backs. And Brees and Wilson, aside from Romo the most obvious exceptions, are classic Moneyball inefficiencies — guys who projected as good NFL QBs who fell in the draft because a lot of scouts thought they didn’t look like NFL QBs. (It’s not coincidental that the Browns believed in this line of old-school bullshit too.) If you know what you’re doing, projecting QBs isn’t unusually difficult.  Moreover, once you discover a hidden gem like Tom Brady, he generally stays good every year, while top running backs don’t.

But this unpredictability isn’t even the most important reason the Richardson pick was dumb. Even if Richardson could be as reliably projected as a quality player as Luck and be expected to be good every year, it still would probably be a bad idea to draft him. The bigger problem is that in modern football the quality of a team’s offense is determined almost entirely by the quality of its passing attack. The marginal quality of a team’s running game has virtually no correlation with winning, while the quality of a team’s passing game has a very tight correlation with winning. This is disguised in part because a lot of people look at the wrong metrics, focusing on gross yardage instead of yardage per play. Winning teams often run more often, because if you have a big lead in the 4th quarter burning the clock and minimizing turnovers is more important than maximizing your scoring, but they don’t run more effectively. And the idea that you have to “establish” a good running game to have a good passing game is also a myth. If you don’t believe the systematic evidence, just look at the career of top quarterbacks, from Starr to Brady and Manning. You’ll see a wide variety in the quality of their team’s running game that has no discernible effect on their performance. Then, look at the kind of QB play that has gone along with the rare consistently elite runners like Sanders and Peterson. See? If you can pass you can pass and if you can’t you can’t. If you can pass, a below-average running game will do just fine, and if you can’t a quality running game won’t lead to a good offense. (Brien’s examples are a case in point. Foster was below-average this year, and last year while he was outstanding when Houston’s #1 QB went out their offense was immediately hideous. The Vikings have generally had mediocre-to-awful offenses even with Peterson, including during his historic season this year.)   There just isn’t that big a gap between the best and worst running backs available to NFL teams, and there’s a lot of movement between the two groups.

An expensive running back is a luxury item. If you’re a good team, it’s a bad-odds gamble that might or might not work. If you’re a bad team, it’s about as useful as a Burberry trenchcoat in a hurricane.

…as for the Seahawks/Falcons game, let us never speak of this again.   Except to say that as utterly horrible as the conclusion was every time icing the kicker fails God saves many struggling orphans.

Comments (221)

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  1. Tybalt says:

    After all, even if you think “ground and pound” is what wins football games, I’d suggest that you want to dominate the line of scrimmage. Hard to do that with a running back.

  2. Decrease Mather says:

    But why didn’t Atlanta go for two after the offsides call on the extra point?

  3. Murc says:

    Somebody else would have traded up to get him at #3.

    I’ve never understood why this is brought up, ever.

    If someone is worth trading up for, they’re worth trading up for on the merits. What other teams are going to do is completely irrelevant, is it not?

    • “What other teams are going to do is completely irrelevant, is it not?”

      Not in a draft in which you can trade picks, no.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      It’s relevant, I suppose, in the sense that if Richardson would have been available at #4 then the moving up would be even dumber than it already was. But since if another team traded up to pick Richardson it would mean they were the sucker instead of you, in this case it’s rather beside the point.

    • dan says:

      For the record, the Browns started the season with something in the neighborhood of 15 rookies on their 53-man roster. There’s a limit to how many rookies as a practical matter a team can carry; I’m not sure that staying put at #4 in the draft would have had any real effect on how the team eventually came out, so if it was worth drafting Richardson at the 4th position, they didn’t really lose anything trading up to the 3rd position. The only consequence was that the players they would have drafted with the picks they gave up they ended up getting, or getting their near-equavelents, as undrafted rookie free agents. The real problem is that Richardson wasn’t worth the #4 pick; the team could have run the ball just as well with a lesser known running back, plus done something else with that pick that would have helped another part of the team. For example, instead of trading up for Richardson and reaching for Weeden, the Browns could have traded up for RG3 and drafted Alfred Morris later in the draft. That seemed to be a plan that worked out well for Washington, if you consider going to the playoffs to be a better outcome than winning five games.

      • The Browns tried to trade up to the #2 pick. Indeed, they were awfully pissed off when Washington got the pick, because they thought they had agreed to a deal or something.

        • dan says:

          No, they just got outbid by a team that properly valued franchise quarterbacks, while the Browns weren’t willing to pay market value, which is why they are back drafting where they always do, while the three other teams that ended up picking in the top four were in the playoffs.

  4. Domino says:

    The kicker knew his first attempt wasn’t going to count, so he just kicked it for the hell of it. I thought Carrol was upset that the officials A) let him do it B) didn’t penalize him for it (for the record I have no idea if it is a penalty for a kicker to do that.)

    I think the run game actually matters a lot more at the college level. Looks at teams like Alabama, Oregon, LSU, heck even KSU this season. All 4 of them love to run the ball, which they use to open up the pass. And all 4 of them did it w/ QBs who none would consider “elite” passers. (NOTE: Mariota may well get into that category by the end of his career, but he’s not there yet.)

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Oh, the NCAA is another question entirely. I don’t know enough to know how different it is, but it’s likely that the gap between the best and worse RBs in college is a lot greater.

  5. Your problem continues to be that you’re still talking in terms of the NBA or something. Yes, the best way to build a winning team is to get a Brady/Rogers/Manning/Brees type of quarterback. Since the vast majority of teams can’t have that kind of quarterback, however, you have to figure out another way to build an offense good enough to win, because an NBA style tanking approach makes no sense in the NFL. Having the ability to run the ball is generally quite beneficial to this sort of passing attack (play action!), and you may have heard that running backs are allowed to catch the ball too! There’s definitely a case to be made that Cleveland traded away too much to move up, but on the other hand there wasn’t necessarily a great alternative for them on the board either.

    And this is likely going to get even more true as teams realize they don’t have to force their quarterbacks into a prototype, can run the read option, etc. As I said in the comments on the divisional round thread, only two of this years postseason teams finished below the top 20 in rushing, and half of them finished in the top eight.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Please to be naming any team that’s built an effective passing attack thorough an elite running back.

      you may have heard that running backs are allowed to catch the ball too!

      If expensive, top-pick running backs were better receivers than other running backs, this would even be relevant. How much did Richardson add to Cleveland’s passing attack this year?

      • “Please to be naming any team that’s built an effective passing attack thorough an elite running back.”

        The Ravens and Texans, when they’re good.

        • JRoth says:

          That’s silly, the Ravens have had an elite QB… never.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          How did the Texans do when Schaub got hurt last year? Why did Schaub’s performance remain similar this year when Foster got substantially worse?

          • Last year they won some games with T.J. Yates and a playoff game. This year I don’t know if Schaub counts as a QB who can win games when you need him to.

            • shah8 says:

              Scott doesn’t particularly understand that, though…

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Last year they won some games with T.J. Yates and a playoff game.

              They won those games in spite of their putrid offense rather than because of it, of course.

              • I didn’t say they didn’t. You were the one who implied that having Schaub go down somehow caused them to go into a tailspin or something.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  They did go into a a near-tailspin, going 4-4 against a not-very-good schedule after starting out 7-3. And the only reason it wasn’t worse is that the defense was very good.

                • And they lost three out of their last four games (including losing to the Vikings and Colts) and blew a chance to put away the top seed with just one additional win with Schaub playing like shit this year.

                  Point being, I think you’re really overestimating Matt Schaub’s quarterbacking skills.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  You’re right — Schaub was unimpressive down the stretch this year. And so the Texans lost, despite Arian Foster. (Who had a very mediocre year, in a system in which any random waiver-wire pickup can run effectively, after signing an expensive contract.) So this contradicts what I’m saying how?

  6. Joe says:

    John Fox: I would have played for OT.

  7. Mudge says:

    Running backs are a crap shoot. Adrian Foster was an undrafted free agent. Terrell Davis was 6th round. On the other hand choosing a Smith (Akili or Alex) as quarterback in the first round never works well. Or Carson Palmer. So, on the hypothetical question of whether to draft Akili Smith or trade up for Richardson, the choice of Richardson might make sense. A lot of teams passed on Russell Wilson, fingering the Browns’ failure is a bit extreme.

    But I do agree with your thesis, adequate running backs can be found almost anywhere. You might argue that Cleveland should have taken J.J. Watt rather than Richardson after trading up. Good rush ends are hard to find.

  8. I guess I’d also note that your “don’t run ever!” philosophy goes all the way to faulting John Fox for running on third down when the Ravens had no timeouts down a touchdown. So…yeah.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I guess I’d also note that your “don’t run ever!” philosophy

      What the hell are you talking about? I addressed this strawman in the OP, and still you persist. Anyway, running plays can be useful! Every NFL team should dress running backs! In terms of whether teams should invest high draft picks or high salaries in running backs, however, these banal observations are neither here nor there.

      • Also too, the success of a running back on the critical plays is most often a result of a good offensive line

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        And, by the way, I certainly stand behind my criticism of Fox. I’m confident that the percentages will show it as the wrong move. And, of course, the particulars make this much worse than the general case, since Manning is surely more likely than the typical QB to complete a 7+-yard pass and end the game, and while Flacco isn’t a great QB throwing an accurate deep ball is what he does best. If it’s a 3rd-and-2, sure, go ahead and run.

        • This is farcical. Your best bet is to use the clock against the other team that has no timeouts, Manning or no Manning (maybe John Fox remembered Tom Brady throwing an incomplete pass in the AFCCG last year, giving the Ravens a chance to get the ball back and come within a dropped catch of getting the lead!) Besides that, considering that the Ravens don’t have a particularly good defensive line and have trouble stopping the run, it was hardly out of the question that the run could have gone for a first down.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            Why? How can that extra 35 seconds be worth what was a much greater chance of a game-ending first down? Baltimore was already out of time outs.

            • Right, if keeping the clock running takes it down to under 20 seconds, then by all means do it. But a first down ends the game and the one thing Denver did this year was get Peyton Effing Manning so why not let him do that voodoo that he does so well?

            • How can a better (but by no means exceptionally better) chance at a first down be worth less than taking away 4-7 plays from the other team’s offense if you have to give them the ball back down a touchdown? Really?

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Because there’s no way it gives the other team 7 extra plays if they don’t have any time outs? And a run straight into the line 3rd-and-7 when it’s not a surprise does in fact have an exceptionally low chance of getting a first down?

                • “Because there’s no way it gives the other team 7 extra plays if they don’t have any time outs?”

                  Depends on how good at using the sideline you can be. A quick play to the outside can easily be gotten off in 4-6 seconds, so an additional 40 seconds should at least afford you 5 extra plays, give or take, if you’re good about managing the clock.

                  ” And a run straight into the line 3rd-and-7 when it’s not a surprise does in fact have an exceptionally low chance of getting a first down?”

                  You haz watched the Ravens play the defense this year?

                • mpowell says:


                  A quick play to the outside can easily be gotten off in 4-6 seconds, so an additional 40 seconds should at least afford you 5 extra plays, give or take, if you’re good about managing the clock.

                  Easily is doing a lot of work here. It is possible to run a sidelines play in 4-6 seconds, but actually extremely difficult. Even on plays where the clock is stopped, 10-12 seconds typically comes off. The most common 4-6 second plays are quick incompletions. Of course, these are valuable to the offense if you are more time limited than down limited with 90-120 seconds and no time outs left.

                  I’m still uncertain whether running was the right move or not. You could always have Payton drop back to pass and if nothing is open just take a knee. I’ve never seen a team do that though. Sometimes you see a hopeless dump off to the RB.

    • TT says:

      The 2007 Patriots offense was prolific and they barely ran the ball. The 2012 Patriots offense has also been prolific, but they run the ball a lot more than in ’07. Are there different degrees of prolificness depending on whether you run a lot or a little, or what?

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Clearly, the fact that the Patriots had a historically good offense with Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk shows that you need great running backs to set up the passing game.

        • Mudge says:

          You forgot Corey Dillon, although that was 2006.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            Well, sure, but the Patriot offense actually got better after Dillon left.

            • Sherm says:

              Plus, that was a championship caliber team looking for a final piece of the puzzle. I have no problem with a loaded team investing in a running back to get over the top (like the cowboys and tony dorsett). Attempting to rebuild around a running back is problematic.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Right, I agree. If you’re a good team and can improve your running game without sacrificing much, fine. It’s not like the Patriots gave up a #3 pick for him.

        • Wait, you mean all you have to do to put together an historically great team is get one of the best QBs ever, the best coach ever, a well above average defense, and Randy Moss and Wes Welker on the same team? Clearly every GM in the league should be fired immediately for not recognizing this obviously simple truth!

          • Oh, and maybe the best offensive line in the league. Forgot about that one.

          • Craigo says:

            You haven’t considered that great QBs just happen tp play on great teams, while great RBs do not? That’s an odd coincidence, isn’t it?

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              And, also, the Patriots were a bounce away from winning the Super Bowl last year with a team that didn’t really do anything well but throw the ball. They haven’t had a “well above average” defense in a while.

              • jeer9 says:

                The Patriots lost last year, just as they lost in the record-setting Moss season to the Giants, because their pass-heavy offense “underperformed” (credit to the G-men’s D).

                They have won SBs when their defense was much stronger.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  1)Nobody says that defense isn’t important. 2)What way Super Bowl games decided by 3 points come out is probably not a good way of evaluating teams. 3)The Giants are a pretty good counter to Brien’s assumption that once a part of your defense is good there’s no benefit to improving it. 4 good pass rushers are, in fact, better than 3!

                • The Giants also had a well above average quarterback and three very talented wide receivers on the roster, which the Browns don’t. Please to be telling me more about how a team should strive to be the 2000 Ravens only without Jamal Lewis.

                • jeer9 says:

                  I’m not really arguing against your thesis about running backs (the Pats after all won a SB with Antoine Smith), just that I’d prefer a top 10 defense in the big game any day over a top 10 offense. And even a mediocre defense with a good plan can shut down a great offense. (#24 defense of Pats shuts down #1 offense of Rams.)

                  Who was most responsible for last year’s win:

                  the Giants’ #8 offense that rang up 21 vs. a #31 defense or the Giants’ #27 defense that held the #2 offense to 17?

            • Of course I have. This is sort of the point. Scott’s premise, however, seems to be that Bradyesque quarterbacks aren’t by any means rare, so any team that doesn’t have the foresight to get one is deluded or something.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Scott’s premise, however, seems to be that Bradyesque quarterbacks aren’t by any means rare

                [cites omitted]

                Again, Scott’s actual premises are that 1)it’s nearly impossible to predict who will be an elite running back in a given year, and 2)the marginal quality of a team’s running game has very little impact on a team’s ability to win. You have adduced zero evidence against either proposition.

                I’m also not sure why you see QBs as a dichotomy. An elite QB is best, but you win more with a decent QB than a bad one. That’s not true of running backs. If you had a good RB to the Browns offense, you get…the Chiefs.

                • Cites omitted is a better trick when it’s not, you know, the whole thread. Literally every example you cite of a team that doesn’t need a running game at all involves either an elite quarterback or a combination of very good quarterback and deep talent at the offensive skill positions. If I’m wrong, you’re free to give me a counterexample.

                  “I’m also not sure why you see QBs as a dichotomy. An elite QB is best, but you win more with a decent QB than a bad one. That’s not true of running backs. If you had a good RB to the Browns offense, you get…the Chiefs.”

                  Alternatively, if you add Russell Wilson to the Browns (which they could have done with the 23rd pick!), you get…the Seahawks! (or a reasonably close approximation on paper, anyway).

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  doesn’t need a running game at all

                  Again, running plays are useful. All NFL teams should dress running backs, and use them. The actually relevant question are whether investing in expensive running backs is a good use of resources, and whether the marginal quality of a team’s running game significantly increases its ability to win.

                  Alternatively, if you add Russell Wilson to the Browns (which they could have done with the 23rd pick!), you get…the Seahawks!

                  Except, you know, that the Seahawks don’t share your theory than one good corner and one pass rusher is plenty good, so they had the 7th best defense in the league rather than the 19th.

              • Col Bat Guano says:

                Alternatively, if you add Russell Wilson to the Browns (which they could have done with the 23rd pick!), you get…the Seahawks! (or a reasonably close approximation on paper, anyway).

                Your paper is smudged and wrinkled if you think the Browns would have been anywhere near as good as the Seahawks this season.

    • Craigo says:

      By the numbers, Fox did indeed make the wrong call.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Yeah, I was 99% sure that this would be the case. And again, while I’m the first to say that you can’t always apply these general stats to the particular, here the particularities makes Fox’s call much worse, not better.

  9. Thlayli says:

    In the Super Bowl era, the league’s rushing leader has played in the Super Bowl five times: Emmitt Smith three times, Terrell Davis, and Shaun Alexander.

    The league’s passer-rating leader has played in the Super Bowl fifteen times, most recently Drew Brees in 2009. There have been three Super Bowls where both conferences’ passer-rating leaders have appeared (it would be four if Phil Simms had not been injured in 1990).

    • Mudge says:

      Smith had Aikman and Davis had Elway. One can argue that being the rushing leader had little or no influence on the teams’ success. Three in 50 years is almost pure chance.

      • Sherm says:

        They both had great offensive lines. Smith played behind several pro bowlers, and Davis had the benefit a great zone blocking scheme.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          And even so, Smith got more than 5 yards a carry exactly once. (And, also, Hasselbeck in 2005 was an excellent QB.)

          • Mudge says:

            I never argue with a Seattle fan. He had a good year, but somewhat of an outlier. His bust will not join Aikman’s and Elway’s.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Of course, I’m not putting him in the Hall of Fame. My point is just that the 2005 Seahawks aren’t an example of a team that got to the Super Bowl solely on the back of an elite running back.

              • shah8 says:

                psssst…don’t forget Shaun Alexander!

                • shah8 says:

                  Almost 1900 yards rushing, 28 total TDs, compared to relatively pedestrian passing numbers and 25 total TDs by the white boy.

                  Oh yeah, Hutchinson, Jones, Strong deserves credit, too!

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  You may want to consult your dictionary to determine the meaning of the word “solely.”

    • Well shit, three of the teams making the championship round had top 11 run offenses, and only half of the quarterbacks were picked in the first round. I guess that proves…something.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Yes, if only there were systematic ways of addressing these questions rather than relying on random anecdotes that rely heavily on the outcomes of close postseason games.

  10. Sherm says:

    Tough loss. Sorry. But great comeback and an impressive young team.

  11. The Browns pick was especially disappointing because even if Richardson was a Hall of Fame running back, the team would not improve much by adding him. And by improve, I mean victories.

    When you have a bad team, like the Browns, you ought to take BPA. And last year, that was Morris Claiborne.

    • Sherm says:

      Exactly right. You don’t build around a running back. Build a great line and any clown can run behind them.

      • Rhino says:

        This. If the offensive line is top notch, even I could run off an eight yard gain.

        I would probably not even survive the hit that stopped me, but damned near anyone can run through a hole opened by a great line. Some RBs are better than others, but the very best go nowhere without that hole and those blocks.

      • But what’s the alternative pick? Kalil would have been a waste for a team with Joe Thomas, their secondary isn’t exactly terrible, and taking Blackmon isn’t clearly better than drafting a RB for a team without a quality QB.

        • Craigo says:

          You conveniently stopped naming draft picks right before Morris Claiborne.

          Or the Browns, a legitimately awful team, could have traded down. Or, as Scott notes, they could have drafted a QB with an unbelievable record if they weren’t so hung up on the fact that he was the same height as Drew Brees – which doesn’t even make sense.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            Right. First of all, you can always improve your secondary and pass rush and o-line. People get hurt! Weak spots will blow up on you! And if you don’t like anybody at these positions, trade down.

            • Two really good CBs is exactly what made the Browns defense of the Schottenheimer/Kosar years so good.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                As I say below, I can’t say that I find Brien’s assumption that a perennial 4-win team just doesn’t have any holes other than RB that can be filled if no elite QB is available very plausible.

          • A) I noted that they didn’t have a horrible secondary, which was a reference to Claiborne and Barron specifically.

            B) Trading down might work, but it’s not like there was a huge amount of talent in the middle of the first round.

            C) Sure, they could have been the one team to accurately evaluate Wilson and drafted him third overall. Or they could have used their second first round pick and taken him instead of Weeden, giving them a hell of a run option combo!

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Yes, clearly if your secondary isn’t horrible, there’s no point in trying to improve it. I mean, what use is a second high-quality CB in the modern NFL, when teams don’t pass much and generally just target their top wideout a few times a game!

              • Okay, fair enough. Hard to argue that a team with two high quality cornerbacks, a decentish front seven, well below average quarterback, and little to no talent at the offensive skill positions is a solid foundation for a team It certainly worked well for the 2011 Jets!

                • A team’s particular needs, and the Browns had many, do not change the desirability of a particular player. The need for a better QB didn’t make Weeden a better pick. When you draft in the top half of the first round, you should be getting a high quality, high impact player. An all-pro at an important position. Claiborne would have made an already decent defense much better for the next few years.

                • chris says:

                  Well, if your team consists of almost nothing but weak spots, it’s hard to see any one draft pick turning them into championship contenders, or even playoff material.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  It certainly worked well for the 2011 Jets!

                  I concede your point — take the 2011 Jets, remove one quality corner, and add a below-average running back and you get…the 2012 Jets! How this is moving in the right direction is unclear.

        • Jonas says:

          Last I heard, there are two OTs on the field at any time

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Yup — that’s exactly it. Richardson probably won’t be an elite running back, and even if he is you’re not really any closer to winning than you were before. As a Seahwak fan, if you suggested trading Irvin for Richardson I’d laugh in your face…

      • shah8 says:

        You already have Marshawn Lynch, the number fucking 12th pick in the 2007 draft, where *two* RBs were better than any of the QBs picked! Seattle doesn’t NEED Richardson.

        Holy Jesus fucking Christ, but you are insane on this topic, and disingenuous as hell about it as well.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          This would be true even if we didn’t have Lynch, of course.

          than any of the QBs picked

          If only there were other positions to choose from! Anyway, yes, I would strongly recommend using the Bills as your example of how to build a successful team by using high draft picks on a succession of running backs.

        • janastas359 says:

          And yet your statement here proves Scott’s point – according to Football Outsiders, Marshawn Lynch wasn’t ranked any better than 25th among running backs during any of his seasons with the Bills. The Bills, who selected him 12th, didn’t get nearly enough value for him with that pick.

          The Seahawks traded a 4th round pick for him and have had the second best back in the league for 2 years. Obviously, the Seahawks didn’t need to use as valuable an asset to get a valuable player for a few seasons. So which strategy was smarter – gambling with a valuable resource (a high pick), or going low risk, high reward by trying to get your hands on an undervalued asset?

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            This too. Lynch is yet another example of the fact that you can acquire a quality RB for nothing.

          • shah8 says:

            ?

            All I said was that Seattle already had a first round caliber RB. Lynch’s production with the Bills wasn’t particularly relevant, but it *was* good to get first round caliber talent for cheap.

            Broadly speaking, The Bills did get great RBs with those picks. They have a great OL, etc, etc…They have bad QB’ing and are rather poorly managed. Drafting RBs in the first round are the least of their problems. Lynch improving as a feature back does have a great deal to do with being on a more functional team; they didn’t have a good QB until this year, too. Randy Moss had low production with the Raiders, and Larry Fitzgerald this year as well, due to dysfunctional teams.

            And Scott, you never said which positions were so worthy of the first round!

          • Shawn says:

            The Bills dumped Lynch because he got busted for smoking a joint and said bad stuff about the city of Buffalo. Then they used another high pick for Spiller. That level of ineptitude borders on that of a comic book super villain.

  12. Jim Lynch says:

    S.L.- You sound like the academic you are with that breakdown.

    (Somewhere Sid Gilliam & Bill Walsh are chuckling).

  13. Tracy Lightcap says:

    All of this is predicated by an assumption that pro teams will continue to play “pro-style” offenses. If this week has proven one thing it is that the days of classic dropback passers being the be-all, end-all of the NFL are, like, totally over. The performance of What’s-His-Name with the 49ers and Wilson today should prove that to anyone. In a few years, it’ll be teams with TO offenses and QBs who can run them who will be consistently victorious in the league.

    And that means that running the ball will become more important. If you can get good results running, several good things usually happen. You cut down on the other team’s time on offense, you cut down on losses on plays, you cut down on turnovers, you cut down on long 3rd downs, and you drastically reduce the time the game takes. All of these things make life easier on your defense and much, much harder for the other side’s. That means you wear them down and they begin to make mistakes. If your blocking schemes have anything like the right complexity, you also get the vast practice advantage of repetition in running plays as well.

    Now, this does not mean that Scott’s point about running backs is wrong. The most important position in a TO offense is QB. Anyone who wants to run one, can find a What’s-His-Name or a Wilson in the draft, and drafts an RB first is nuts. Oth, believing that running is not important in football is, imho, sooooo yesterday.

    • Anonymous says:

      All of this is predicated by an assumption that pro teams will continue to play “pro-style” offenses. If this week has proven one thing it is that the days of classic dropback passers being the be-all, end-all of the NFL are, like, totally over.

      Overreaction Day came early this year.

      • Rhino says:

        I’m not so sure, I’ve been thinking similar thoughts since Vick came into the league.

        • Doesn’t Vick’s career, even before his suspension, give you pause? When he rushed for a 1000 yards, and had a 1000 yard RB in Warrick Dunn, the Falcons didn’t make the playoffs.

          Look at starting QBs in the conference championship games over the last five years. How many are not drop-back passers?

          • Craigo says:

            Not many. Vick got there once or twice,but otherwise you’d have to redefine running quarterback to include McNabb, Roethlisberger, and Rodgers.

            • JRoth says:

              Roethlisburger clearly is not a running QB in the vein of Vick, but he’s also nobody’s idea of a drop-back passer. The entire premise of the 2012 offensive scheme was to reflect that Ben is now 30, with a LOT of sacks and tackles in his history, meaning that he needs to become more of a drop-back passer (or at least a passer who does the occasional 3-step & pass).

              No idea about McNabb and Rodgers in this context. Maybe we need to consider 3 QB types*, not 2.

              * running, mobile, and drop-back

          • Tracy Lightcap says:

            No. Vick was a straight ad-libber. He ran when he had to or when the D broke down. He wasn’t running plays that were designed to exploit his running ability or where there was anything like an option read. He would have been unstoppable if he had.

            As for the last five years: like I said, I think this kind of thinking is sooooo yesterday. That said, I admit that it will take awhile and that 5 years from now the league will probably still have more classic dropback QBs then TO types. But the writing is on the wall and it is, imho, just a matter of time.

            • Craigo says:

              Yeah, Vick would have been the most unstoppable player on IR if only he’d been given the opportunity to take more hits.

      • Green Caboose says:

        Seriously. IIRC the biggest surprise of the year, and certainly the biggest improvement in terms of W-L record (from 2-14 to 11-5) in many, many years, was with a traditional drop-back rookie QB.

        QBs with both running and passing skills have always been exciting, especially in their early years. And recent offensive scheme developments have optimized their usage unlike never before. (Let us remember that Cunningham and Elway both had very similar skill sets to RG3 and Russell when they entered the league, but without any offensive schemes to take advantage of those skills they were basically just great scramblers when the blocking protection broke down.)

        It’s far from a foregone conclusion that the “old” style of drop-back passing is gone. Yes, we’re seeing some really fun stuff with 3 young QBs right now and formations like the “pistol” – but like any new development it needs some time before we know if it’s here to stay. A few years ago, when Miami surprised and won their division with the wildcat, almost half the teams in the league introduced a wildcat package. Now that gimmick is rarely seen. Meanwhile, most of the most potent passing offenses still use the drop-back method – New England, Atlanta, New Orleans, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, Detroit (yeah, I know they lost a lot of games this year – their offense still often racks up points in droves).

        • Tracy Lightcap says:

          The only thing standing in the way is – the owners. The main reason the pros still use classic dropback offenses is that the owners don’t want to carry two QBs of roughly equal talent; too expensive. But they’ll get over that as the trend comes on. I might add that, since the game is changing so much away from pro-style offenses in college, both the availability of TO QBs and the scarcity of legit dropback ones will help things along.

          Of course, the shelf life of QBs might go down as well, but, as many observers have pointed out, the main thing threatening pro (and college) QBs these days is being crucified while they are setting up in the pocket. Running through a defense where the best you’ll get is a glancing hit from a partially immobilized opponent isn’t all that formidable. But to get that kind of advantage, you have to go all 49ers; just running the TO part of the time won’t cut it. But, like I say, I think we’ll see that soon.

          • Green Caboose says:

            You could be right – I love watching scheme evolution in football and we may start seeing everyone favor the running QB style.

            I’m not sure about the idea of owners not wanting to have two quality QBs on the roster – with the second commanding a high salary. For many years we’ve seen teams willing to do exactly that – from Montana-Young to Favre-Rodgers. Remember when Kyle Orton – hardly anyone’s idea of a great QB – when on the free agent market as a backup QB last year there was a bidding war for him that Dallas won.

            More likely the issue is salary cap – when you trade off the cost of having someone like Steve Young as a backup versus being able to sign that great free agent pass rusher you generally figure you’re better off with the pass rusher and you can hope that your 3d string QB can step in. For this reason, despite lots of talk of the Redskins trading QB Kirk Cousins this off season I’m sure he’ll remain a Redskin until he can become a restricted free agent, as they can keep his salary low and they do need a high caliber backup.

    • LosGatosCA says:

      I think all these young running QBs are destined to be old drop back passing QB’s or just tragic cases of promising careers cut short by injury QBs. Bodies wear out from routine hits, reflexes slow from age quicky from football wear and tear, and then one day you (the young running QB) get smarter, run less, or you’re flattened from behind by that Patrick Willis or clone who turns out to be a little quicker than you thought because you didn’t see him coming.

      IIRC, something like 178 yards of Kaepernicks rushing total came befor contact. That’s not a strategy you can plan on. He was untouched on many of those runs like the 56 yard touch down run. Great to exploit the opportunities that he did but it’s basically non-repeatable.

      If every single run he had had finished like his 15 yard run that led to the taunting call against him, he wouldn’t even be playing next week, never mind the next 10 years.

    • JKTHs says:

      Wilson today

      You mean the Wilson that threw for nearly 400 yards?

  14. charles pierce says:

    You can’t do the sabremetrics-v-oldtimers schtick in football. There are too many obvious human variables, including an individual’s ability to play tackle fotball with injuries that would keep the rest of us away from our laptops for a month. As for the argument about QB’s, Scott, of the ones that played this weekend, only three (Ryan, Mannin and Rodgers) would qualify as elite draft picks coming out of college. Brady, Kapernick, Wilson, and Schaub all made their bones when pricier models either got hurtor failed. And the whole “establishing the running game” thing should have gone out with the 49′ers in the 1980′s.

    • Mudge says:

      *Hand up*..what about Flacco, what about Flacco?

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Brady and to a lesser extent Kaepernick I’ll give you, but Wilson should have been higher ranked than he was. I don’t mean to suggest that picking QBs is anything like an exact science, only that it’s easier to identify quality QBs than quality RBs.

      I agree that it’s much harder to do sabermetric analysis of individual players than in baseball — obviously, players are much more dependent on others. But statistical analysis can tell us a lot at the team level, and it’s pretty clear than whether you have an above-average or below-average running game doesn’t matter very much. (Hell, as Patriots fan you’ve seen that first hand.)

      • ” whether you have an above-average or below-average running game doesn’t matter very much. (Hell, as Patriots fan you’ve seen that first hand.)”

        And why you keep asserting this as though the Patriots have some generic quarterback who passes the ball 50+ times per game I don’t really understand.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          If it were only the Patriots, this would be relevant. But it’s not. The marginal quality of your running game just doesn’t matter very much, full stop.

          • Domino says:

            Didn’t the Colts suffer quite a bit during Manning’s last few years there because they could not replace Edgerrin James? Now James wasn’t an “elite” level runner for long, but they never had an elite runner that kept the defense from backing up and playing zone.

            Of course the Colts won a bunch of games, but never went on a run of Super Bowls like the Pats did in the early part of the 2000′s

            • Craigo says:

              The Colts won 12, 13, 12, and 14 games after James left, before finally dipping to 10 in 2010. They were 2nd, 3rd, 13th, 7th, and 4th in offensive points during that stretch.

              And while SBs have been a staple of this conversation, it needs to be noted that championships aren’t actually the sabermetric gold standard in any of the big four North American sports, let alone the one that uses a single elimination tournament.

              • JRoth says:

                Wasn’t the AFC South awful in most, in not all, of those years? 12 wins in a season where you have 6 gimmes isn’t super-impressive – it’s a 6-4 record against the rest of the league. Part of the reason the Steelers should be a perennial playoff team is 4 gimmes every year, plus a split against the Ravens most years. So they’re 5-1 before training camp, unless they screw up (or their QB rapes somebody).

          • Of course it’s not only the Patriots. It’s those other teams that have either elite quarterbacks or very good quarterbacks and lots of receivers as well. That tells us pretty much nothing about teams that don’t have that threshold of quarterback play or those caliber WR/TE, though.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              What it tells you is that if you can’t throw you’re not going to have a good offense.

              • No fucking shit! Thankfully no one is arguing the alternative, except, apparently, for you, as you seem to think that if the Browns had taken Claiborne or Blackmon instead of Richardson it would have made some sort of material difference to a team with one of the three or four worst quarterbacks in the league.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  Except Clairborne and Blackmon would help the team if they ever plan on acquiring a good QB, and if they’re not Richardson will be no help whatsoever anyway. Again, if you assume that the Browns will never have a decent QB they might as well skip the draft altogether. Where you’re wrong is to assume that if you can’t get a good QB, a good running back is an adequate alternative. It isn’t!

                • I have no idea why you think wide receivers are any more important than running backs. Offense in the NFL basically comes down to these three things, in order of importance. 1) Get a quarterback who can make plays. 2) Get an offensive line that can block effectively. 3) Round out the roster with talented skill position players wherever you can find them. Because once you take care of the first two, the coaching staff can design an offense to suit the rest of the team, and it really won’t matter what the fuck it is.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  I have no idea why you think wide receivers are any more important than running backs.

                  Because the passing game is extremely important while the marginal quality of your running game isn’t?

            • TT says:

              So you’re saying that teams with bad quarterbacks are usually….bad?

    • greylocks says:

      And the whole “establishing the running game” thing should have gone out with the 49′ers in the 1980′s.

      Actually, it should have gone out with Fouts and “Air” Coryell with the Chargers even before that.

      It just amazes me that 30+ years after Fouts showed everyone why a QB who can hit receivers who can catch is worth at least 4x any running back in terms of yardage alone, we’re still having this discussion.

    • Green Caboose says:

      Sabermetrics don’t work in Football. Period.

      Look, in baseball you can make the assumption that a player’s stats stand on their own and that is largely valid. Oh sure, a pitcher with a bad defense will suffer a higher ERA as a result, and a batter who hits in front of two HOF-caliber hitters is going to get a lot more pitches to hit, so there are differences in terms of what each player experiences. But on the whole the differences aren’t huge. Oh sure, a player going 0-4 one day may have had 4 tremendous swings that had the bad luck to be right at a defender, while the next day his 3-4 day was the result of bloopers and dribblers that resulted in hits, but over a season these things average out.

      Not so in football. No stat in football is independent of the situation – none. Every stat is a team stat. A running back gains 250 yards in one week and 10 in the next. Did he go into a slump, or not try, in the second week? Of course not. If you want to understand the difference you look at his whole offense and compare the two defenses he faced. And you look at the situations.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        If you want to understand the difference you look at his whole offense and compare the two defenses he faced. And you look at the situations.

        Banal points that everyone who analyzes football stats understands perfectly well.

        • chris says:

          I think the real reason sabermetrics don’t work in football is that there are just too few games per season, so the data sets are too small and noisy. And even if they did work they wouldn’t predict injuries, which are much more common in football than baseball.

  15. shah8 says:

    Nothing anyone could ever say will make a difference here, since Scott doesn’t know what he’s talking about. As Wolfgang Pauli went, “he’s not even wrong!”

    Instead, I think I should emphasize that this sort of reasoning is reflective of embedded racist sentiment that wishes to emphasize the value of white QBs relative to everything else, including “running QBs”.

    You can tell this is so in one way, by simply examining just how badly the proposition “No running back is worthy of being picked in the first round” fails at being uniquely applied to running backs. Should the first round consist of only “high value positions”? Obviously, a QB, but what other position? Allow me to pick OT, DE, NT/UT–these are all positions dominated by stars that have have been picked in the first round (and aside from most of those space-eaters, high proportion of whiteness). Is it even possible to fill out a first round with *just* those positions? How about the top half? And what if a team already has all those positions filled? Lastly, what if a good prospect just isn’t available for your position? 2011 saw a bunch of bad QBs picked in the first round, aside from Newton. All from teams reaching, when they should have followed San Francisco and Cincinnati’s example and pick leftovers. Aldon Smith and AJ Green were pretty good picks, right? More than that, Trent Richardson simply hasn’t had a bad season, given his TD production or his total yards in 14 games, I believe. And we’re talking about Trent Richardson, when we *could* be talking about Doug Martin, hmmm, wonder why that is?

    /me rolls the eyes. RBs touch the ball second most to the QB, and they are pretty damned important to a functional offense. That’s why GMs draft RBs in the first round, many of them because they directly experienced what the lack of a real RB impacts the offense. It’s so fucking wierd, because if you actually watched much Browns football in 2011, you’d have seen how badly affected by inadequate RBs the Browns’ offense was (as well as Colt McCoy). And Hardesty was part of that effort!

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Nothing anyone could ever say will make a difference here, since Scott doesn’t know what he’s talking about

      I’m obviously not going to engaged with shah8′s content-free combination of bare assertions and insults again. I’ll just invite everyone to look at the initial thread, and note that he cited Michael “3.5 yards a carry!” Pittman and the 2002 Bucs as an example of a team that won with a great running game. Being told by shah8 that you don’t know what you’re talking about is like Rick Perry calling someone else a dumbshit.

      • JRoth says:

        You might want to edit that last line, Scott. It doesn’t read the way you intended it (I assume).

      • shah8 says:

        So ad-hominemy…

        Come back with better, since, well, you know, there was Mike Alstot sharing the load (went to the pro-bowl, natch). Besides, the 2002 offense was about letting the defense win the game, and running the ball was part of that strategy–one that worked.

        I win these kinds of argument, but that’d be among people who actually watch the games, read books and articles about the game, so forth and one–and people who would actually engage the arguments.

        It’s not possible here. I mean, Scott refuses to actually state or guessimate *why* GMs still draft RBs high, if only to knock that reasoning down. Or at least show that GMs believe in “balance”, rather than just the fans. I think that there should be the understanding that Scott is saying that someone who does a job full time is wrong about the details of said job, and I think the burden is fully on Scott to show how a typical GM is doing his or her job wrong. I mean, this isn’t equivalent to talking bout a detail like a surgeon not washing his hand or keeping lists. Everyone who wants to know, does that. This is about second-guessing what particular surgical method is best, reading from popular magazines.

  16. Steve S. says:

    There’s no magic formula. The 49ers long-term success was not appreciably hurt by using four first round picks on RBs during their glory years, nor the Cowboys hurt by Dorsett and Smith, nor the Colts hurt by taking James and Addai. If you want to expand the definition of a high pick to the second round, the Patriots thought it worth trading such a pick for Dillon, as did the Steelers when they traded for Bettis. Point being, spending draft value on RBs is hardly the death knell for your franchise if you’re doing the other stuff correctly.

    Having said that, the Browns need to do a lot more stuff correctly and Richardson didn’t strike this armchair observer as being worth the price.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      you want to expand the definition of a high pick to the second round

      I don’t.

    • Colin Day says:

      Why draft a QB if you have Montana, Staubach, Aikman, Manning, Brady, or Roethlisberger? If the Browns had a decent quarterback, few would have faulted the for drafting a running back.

      • Colin Day says:

        Oops, the Steelers didn’t have Roethlisberger when they traded for Bettis.

      • Steve S. says:

        As I said, if you are doing the other stuff correctly. Spending a high pick on a RB is not inherently stupid though it might be contextually stupid.

        By the way, my comment down below was meant in response to Lemieux’s just above.

        • Craigo says:

          I’d say that spending a high pick on a RB prospect is fine if you’re already set at QB, LT, DE, and CB…but that just raises the question of how they hell you managed to acquire a high pick.

          • Steve S. says:

            Yes, you have to consider the probability that you suffer from a profound quarterbacking problem if you’re picking that high. In fact, many more high picks are spent on QB than RB. Last ten drafts 18 top ten picks on QB and 8 on RB to be exact. If you look at those 18 QBs there’s plenty of rubbish, there are a few that have put up big numbers but have had limited team success, there’s only one who has even played in a Super Bowl.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Right. The idea that the Browns didn’t have any holes that needed to be filled other than RB is hard to sustain in light of the fact that they keep winning 4 games a year.

              • Steve S. says:

                So everybody agrees on the relative importance of QB, the question is, what do you consider the highest justifiable pick to be used on RB?

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  It depends on the particulars of your team and the draft, but I would never use a 1st rounder on a RB and only very rarely a 2nd rounder.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Right. Many teams may have passed on Wilson for perfectly rational reasons. The Browns, who took a much worse college QB who is seven years older than Wilson in the first round, are not one of those teams.

        • But that obviously has nothing to do with what they did with the 4th (and then 3rd) pick. The issue is that they mis-evaluated the QB they took with their subsequent first round pick, which has fuck all to do with Richardson

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            You’re right — both of the Browns first round picks were terrible, and terrible for similar reasons (privileging old-school sportscaster bullshit over actual evidence.) And?

      • If the Browns had had a QB going into the 2012 draft, I would have faulted them for not drafting a WR.

        • Yeah, that makes sense. If they actually had a worthwhile QB they should have drafted Blackmon, but they don’t, so getting a WR probably isn’t going to do a ton of good.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            Or they could have drafted Blackmon and Wilson. (And, of course, while it should have been obvious that Weeden was a terrible pick, presumably they didn’t think so when they passed on Blackmon. To base your drafting strategy on the premise that you’re not planning to have a playable QB anytime in the near future is…not a good way of proceeding.)

            • So your ideal type franchise that doesn’t have an elite pocket passer is either the 2011 Jets or the 2012 Lions? Which is not to say that you couldn’t go with Blackmon over Richardson, but with a good QB the same caveats apply to wide receivers as apply to running backs. Unless, I guess, you want to try to argue that Sidney Rice and Golden Tate are more repsonsible for Seattle’s success than Marshawn Lynch.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                So your ideal type franchise that doesn’t have an elite pocket passer is either the 2011 Jets or the 2012 Lions?

                Or, say, the 2010 Jets? Anyway, if you have a merely OK QB the priority should be to create a really good defense.

  17. Unsympathetic says:

    I’m not sure what your point is, Scott.. the success of the Pats/Giants in recent years has been based not just on the QB but also on the OL and DL. Those are the 3 things you need to consistently win in this league — not just a QB.

    You can’t win with just skill players.. look at the Cowboys and, until today, the Falcons with Ryan.
    You can’t win with just a defense.. the Ravens have tried and keep coming up short. The 49ers for the last few years have had a great D but until CK started they lacked a killer O.

    As for the OP, the Browns have 3 first-or-second team All-Pros on the OL, so that’s a strength. The DL is not at that level yet, and the QB is pedestrian. RB success requires a great OL and a good-to-great QB for the playaction to take the 8-man fronts away.

    As a Browns fan, though, thank God shurmur is gone — I am not sure you can’t put the entirety of this year’s suck on the neck of Shurmur the Lesser and the wholly incompetent [at least while taking money from the Browns] Walrus.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I’m not sure what your point is, Scott.. the success of the Pats/Giants in recent years has been based not just on the QB but also on the OL and DL. Those are the 3 things you need to consistently win in this league — not just a QB.

      Of course! Who’s saying otherwise? The OL and DL are an important part of the pass offense and pass defense. Which is another reason why it’s dumb to waste a top-5 pick on a RB; if there’s no elite QB take a pass rusher, a corner, an offensive lineman, or trade down.

      • greylocks says:

        Exactly. A couple of elite OLs can make your non-elite QB look a lot better.

        Hard to pass when you’re picking the grass out of your teeth all the time.

        • ” A couple of elite OLs can make your non-elite QB look a lot better.”

          Non-elite, perhaps. A guy who overthrows simple crossing routes not so much.

          And really, Scott’s “do something else no matter what!” comment shows the flaw with his premise. The Browns already have an All-Pro LT, a pretty good secondary and a guy they just spent a top five pick on there, and their pass rush isn’t horrible, but be that as it may this was an iffy year for first round caliber pass rushers. What they need are impact skill position players and a QB, and they decided that they were going to draft both of those positions with their two first round picks, an eminently logical choice! The problem (go figure, it’s the Browns) was the execution of the plan, namely that they picked the wrong QB.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            Their defense was 20th against the pass last year. The idea that their secondary didn’t need any improvement is bizarre.

          • gogiggs says:

            The Browns do not have a “pretty good secondary”. They have Joe Haden and that’s pretty much it. TJ Ward is a hard hitter, who can’t stay healthy enough to play. Lack of secondary depth pretty much lost the Dallas game for them because, with Haden out, Buster Skrine was just physically incapable of guarding Dez Bryant, leading to a 12 catch, 145 yd. game for Bryant and a bunch of def. holding/pass interference calls on Skrine.

    • As a Browns fan, I wanted both first round pick to be used on high quality players who would contribute for several years. I didn’t really care about position, but looking at what was available in that draft, it looked to me like they could get two really good defensive players to add to an already not bad defense.

      In my view, they blew it with Richardson & Weeden.

  18. Shawn says:

    My Bills, arguably the worst organization in football for at least a decade, have repeatedly wasted precious first round picks on running backs. The backs have been great and the team dreadful. I hope that the new regime shows more competency around the running back stuff than the last several have.

    Although it has been fun to listen to talk radio callers blame their woes on their failure to establish the run.

    • Arguably the worst? Not as bad as Browns v2.0 – one bad draft after another.

      • And a new five-year plan every two years

        • Shawn says:

          Who knows, maybe the Browns are worse, but the Bills can make a strong case, what with their record making playoff drought, their 94 year owner and their yearly home game in Canada. In any event, their record is bad enough to be a team that should not be emulated.

          • Colin Day says:

            If you play a game in a dome, do so against New England rather than Miami, as the Dolphins might be worse in the Buffalo cold than the Patriots.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      The 2012 Bills are another excellent example of the fundamental marginality of the running game. Spiller was amazing this year, almost as good as Peterson — and the Bills offense was still below average.

  19. JRoth says:

    I don’t have time to look up the relevant stats, but it sure seems as if, while Roethlisburger may be roughly as good whether he has a decent RB or not, the team does not seem to be so. Since Bettis retired, they have performed extremely unevenly with, I’d argue, 4 underperforming years in 6 (which means you can’t really point to the 2 seasons in which Ben missed 4 games as the explanation). This year they lost to the Browns because, basically, they lacked even a single good RB.

    If Scott’s argument is simply “a good RB is good to have, but you can never rely on an RB to be good, so don’t overpay”, then I agree, but he has all this crap in there about how RBs don’t matter, so either he’s bloating his argument to make it seem more impressive, or he’s making claims that aren’t IMO supportable.

    If a team has a choice between Brady and Emmitt Smith, then by all means take Tom. But I don’t think most teams actually face that choice very often.

    • But Brady or Smith isn’t the usual choice; everybody takes the QB when they think he’s there. How about a choice between Smith and an OT? Or a stellar DE? Or an all-pro level CB?

    • JRoth says:

      Just to expand a bit on the Steelers: in the post-Bettis era, there have been numerous games in which the team’s inability to run the clock out in the 4th quarter has cost them the game, because they’re simply unable to keep the other team from getting the ball with several minutes to go, and the defense can only be expected to bail out the offense so much. Maybe one more elite CB (instead of an elite RB) would do the trick, but ISTM that, when your supposedly elite QB has the ball with a 6 point lead and 5 minutes to go, the defense’s day should be done. That’s how it was back in the day (by which I mean “the mid-’00s). But perhaps I’m just living in the romanticized past.

      Again, I haven’t looked at the stats; maybe the OL is to blame in all this, not the lack of quality RBs. But I’m quite confident that this is actually what has happened, regardless of blame.

    • Mudge says:

      The Steelers haven’t been able to protect Roethlisberger. It’s O-line problems..Bettis played with other QBs until Roethlisberger and never went to a Super Bowl. He was unable, alone, to get them there. They went in 2006 (and won) with him, then Roethlisberger went in 2011 without him. Scott’s point is essentially that the running back will never make a team great, you need the QB, drafting an RB high is not usually smart. Bettis’ history seems to support that.

    • Craigo says:

      The Steelers have consistently neglected their lines, for most of a decade. Even Willie Parker, an undersized back with poor vision and strength and average elusiveness put up good numbers behind the awesome Cowher era offensive linemen.

      • Mudge says:

        To be honest, they also have had some injury problems..(see David DeCastro). Their center (Pouncey) is very good. Playing 2nd and 3rd string linemen hurts.

        • Craigo says:

          We’ll see about DeCastro, but otherwise Pouncey has been the sole step forward on the line since Super Bowl XL. Guys get hurt a lot, but the nominal starters are already second-stringers on most other teams.

          • JRoth says:

            Zombie Max Starks is a strong argument for this. They cut him every year, and every year they end up needing him. Injuries, obviously, but they simply don’t have/won’t get OL players strong enough that they can cut ties with a guy they obviously view as inferior.

  20. Steve S. says:

    Ok, you seem to rule out third pick in the first round or higher. What do you think is the cutoff?

    • Sherm says:

      You can usually find a good back in the third round, but I’d have no objection to using a second rounder.

    • Mudge says:

      You can find a good running back off the undrafted list. Arian Foster is an excellent example. Isaac Redman has been serviceable for the Steelers. They are myriad. I’d say 3rd or 4th round is fine if they are BPA.

  21. Craigo says:

    The Football Outsiders research has always been clear on this: The difference between the top and median RBs is much smaller than the top and median QBs. There is almost no correlation at all between draft position and individual performance, or between individual performance and team performance, also unlike QBs. They tend to be injured more often, and more inconsistent regardless of health. That’s the definition of a fungible asset.

    And while the NFL (or at least some teams) do overvalue running backs, it should be noted that they are 8th out of 12th in terms of salary, just above safeties, tight ends, and punters and kickers.

  22. Alan in SF says:

    Calm down, you guys. I just checked the UnskewingTheSuperBowlPredictions site. Apparently it’s gonna be the Cleveland Rams over the Dakota Staleys, by a lot. Take the points.

  23. Stiv says:

    And factor in the rule changes over the years that favor the passing game.

    • Mudge says:

      I have no data, but blocking seems to be far more difficult now. Often when I see a good running play, some old offensive lineman color commentator notes some extraordinary block, like it’s above expectations. Run blocking these days seems to be underemphasized. Like good tackling.

      • Bill Murray says:

        Blocking is far easier now than at least in the 60s and 70s. At that time you had to keep your hands in like in this (http://www.hickoksports.com/biograph/mixron.shtml) photo of Ron Mix. The defenders could slap you upside the head and use their hands more or less any way they wanted.

        Drive run blocking is de-emphasized these days because the stance needed for this gives away that a run is going to occur

        • Green Caboose says:

          In terms of block technique you are absolutely right. Rules changes have helped the offensive line.

          Or course, the reason those changes have been implemented is that the quality of defensive players have improved by several orders of magnitude. Really, please watch some film – not just one or two highlights but a few games – of the “great” defensive fronts of the 1970s. They all had nicknames – the Steel Curtain, the Fearsome Foursome, the Purple People Eaters – even less accomplished defenses like the Orange Crush and Killer Bees had nicknames.

          But compare those greats – many in the HOF – to pass rushing techniques today. It’s like comparing little league play to the world series. Not that those great players of that past were bad – just that the standards of speed, size, and technique have advanced so much that you can’t compare the old styles to the new.

          Yes, blocking IS a lot harder now, even with modern rules advantages. Because even an average defender today presents more of a challenge than Dick Butkus did in his prime.

  24. Bill Murray says:

    “Of the 14 running backs who have been taken in the top five since 1990, only a handful have delivered on their promise. Most have flashes of brilliance mixed with injuries, which is exactly what you get from guys like Jerome Harrison, who cost nothing.”

    I hope you realize this is basically meaningless unless you compare all the positions. Sure it sounds bad, but is it significantly worse than at other positions. Also what does delivered on their promise actually mean?

  25. Chet Manly says:

    A couple of years ago these guys did a statistical analysis of ten years of NFL statistics (2001-2010) to see which stats correlated most with wins.

    Adjusted Net Passing Yards per Attempt was found to be the most important stat with only a derived offensive consistency stat called drive success rate anywhere close.

    Yards per Carry was the second least important stat and nearly as unimportant to winning as Net Punt Yards per Game.

  26. Green Caboose says:

    There was definitely a time when a top quality running back was worth as much as a top quality quarterback, both in college and the pros. Consider that from 1973 to 1983 every Heisman winner was a running back – and this streak was broken only by the magical myth of Doug Flutie, who while a tremendous story, both exciting and fun-to-watch, was clearly not the best college player that year.

    In the NFL during that time period a great running back could turn a loser to a playoff contender on his own – see OJ Simpson, Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, or Billy Sims. Add in great backs on already good teams, like Dorsett and Dickerson, and the benefit back then of a great back is obvious.

    Times were very different. 30+ carries a game was the norm – try that today and the guy won’t survive 16 games without a sidelining injury (with a very few exceptions – Tomlinson last decade, maybe Petersen this). Moreover, teams like the Bills and Bears would be in situations where everyone in the stadium KNEW that there was a 90% chance the play would be a handoff to Simpson or Payton and yet they’d still get 4-6 yards on the carry. Today, in those situations, the defense stacks up in the box and with the superior defensive talent and speed a 6 yard gain is a rarity.

    The last game-dominator running back was probably Barry Sanders. On carpet he was generally unstoppable even when everyone knew he was getting the ball. His contemporary, Emmitt Smith, had one of the greatest OLs ever – certainly the best of his era – plus the benefit of a great passing game – so even Smith wasn’t a “carry-the-team-on-his-back” kind of running back.

    If Petersen had been born 30 years earlier he’d be threating every record in the books. Today, the fact that he can accomplish what he does despite the lack of a potent passing game is simply incredible.

    Nevertheless, the truth is that except for the QB rarely is any the skill players on offense is worth a high draft pick any more (the exceptions are the rare “game changers” – like LT, Peterson, Randy Moss, or Calvin Johnson). This is the ONE AND ONLY point that I agree on with “Cold Hard Football Facts” – running backs and wide receivers – especially WRs – in the first round rarely make sense. Much much much more important are top offensive linemen, superb containment cornerbacks, and HOF-quality pass rushers. As Shanahan has shown again and again, mid-round RBs and WRs can be hugely productive if you have a quality QB and a quality OL.

  27. MIke D. says:

    The icing TO would have been better used to spell the exhausted defense, EVEN IF it gave the Falcons more time to plan plays. In the event, they had no problem getting receivers open nor Matt Ryan finding them.

    Russell Wilson (and I think I might be truly his biggest fan) does need to learn exactly how much time on the clock essentially equals 0:00 for the purpose of running a play (which is between 0:02 and 0:03). The end of the first half looked sickeningly like the end of the Rose Bowl.

    OTOH, those pinning the sack on the play before on him are full of it. Dude was on top of him off the block in a fraction of a second, and he was down literally before a Wilson’s initial reflex reaction.

    • Chester Allman says:

      Agreed on all points, though I’m not worried about Wilson’s clock management skills, which will improve with experience.

      Can’t bring myself to look at any sports coverage today, other than from within the friendly confines of LGM. Despite it all, feeling pretty damn good about Russell Wilson today.

      • Eric says:

        When Lynch fumbled and Unger recovered it I was actually hoping they’d rule that it was a fumble and spot it on he 6 inch line so the Hawks had to run again o score and take more tie off the clock. After the Detroit and Chicago games I knew our D was going to give up the FG. Has there Ben been such a highly rated D that is so nreliable?

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Yeah, I thought the same thing.

        • Chester Allman says:

          Thought that as well. Not sure how much of it is a scheme issue, and how much is about a lack of experience. Doesn’t seem like any particular player is to blame for the late-game struggles, though. As I recall, the Marshall catch in Chicago was on our secondary, whereas it looks like Bobby Wagner (who has generally been magnificent) was the one out of position on the play that gave Atlanta FG position.

    • MIke D. says:

      Actually, I looked at the end of the half again (I love DVR), and you’re completely right. The only thing you could lay on Wilson there is the sack, which, as I say, I find reposterous (the only argument is that he should have been automatically rolling out in order to avoid *even potential* pocket pressure and facilitate dumping the ball, but you never know what the effect of that on clock, scoring opportunity, or the chance of being sacked in an even worse place from which to set up the field goal will be…). It wasn’t Wilson who cause the clock to run from :12 to :00 before he could snap the ball; his team just could not/did not get back to the line in time.

      And again, anyone who looks at that particular play and says Wilson ought to have avoided the tackle just has no idea how fast things are moving out there. There are better runners, but I don’t think you can show me a quarterback who escaped pocket pressure more readily or quickly than Russell Wilson this year. If that sack could have been avoided, Russell Wilson could have and would have done it. If that FG was that important to get, then Carroll should have lined up and kicked it. He was clearly pushing for the TD, and I think with good reason. But that play carries with it the risk of a tackle in bounds. It’s on the QB to avoid that at all costs, but, to paraphrase Colin Powell, you can’t prevent everything from happening (once the plan, whatever it is, has been determined and put into effect – and every plan carries risks).

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  29. [...] the NFL differences in quality have a negligible impact on a team’s performance. It’s hard to overstate what a terrible idea this is. Amazingly, they proceeded from this to do something even stupider, blowing another first round [...]

  30. [...] I’ve mentioned before, Wilson being available was a classic Moneyball inefficiency — he was a clear elite draft [...]

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