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NFL Stat Check


Looking inside the numbers


By Adam Hoff


Sometimes a quick glance at the statistical leaders can tell an interesting story.  Noting that Donovan McNabb leads the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns isn’t terribly surprising, but how many people knew that Marvin Harrison was leading the league in receiving yards?  Just yesterday I acquired him in a trade in one of my fantasy football leagues because the other owner feared he was “washed up.” 


With sports like baseball and basketball, you never really lose sight of raw stats, but in football, sometimes the numbers fade to the background.  Analysis tends to center on wins and losses and teams stats (which are certainly important), while fantasy football participants (usually the first group of people to zero in on the stats) usually focus on stats skewed toward touchdowns, since TD’s are the backbone of most fantasy scoring systems. 


Here are a couple of interesting stats that provide some key information regarding the first five weeks of the NFL season:


Yards Per Carry.  A quick glance at the rushing leaders shows Frank Gore and Steven Jackson leading the league with 465 yards, following by Willis McGahee (439), Chester Taylor (421), and Thomas Jones (389).  What those stats don’t tell you is that Gore is the only member of that group averaging better than 4.1 yards per carry.  Looking further down the list we can see that Fred Taylor (4.0), Rudi Johnson (4.1), Edgerrin James (3.1), LaDainian Tomlinson (3.8), Larry Johnson (3.7), Willie Parker (3.8), Jamal Lewis (3.5), and Ronnie Brown (3.3) are all struggling in the YPC department.  Therefore, it seems to make sense to go to an extra layer and see which running backs have been the most effective this season, based on average rush.  Among players with at least 50 carries, the leaders are:


1. Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia – 5.3.  The pass-first Eagles certainly keep the pressure off Westbrook, but this number shows what an underrated runner he is when healthy enough to play.


2. Tatum Bell, Denver – 5.0.  What took Shanahan so long to make this guy the full-time back? 


3. Deuce McAllister, New Orleans – 4.8.  The feel good stories continue in the Gulf Region.


4. Frank Gore, San Francisco – 4.6.  This just proves how patient the Niners need to be with his fumbling problems.  He’s the only guy with more than 90 carries to be above 4.1 per.


5. (tie) Tiki Barber, NYG – 4.6.  Barber has had a quiet year thus far, but it has been mostly circumstantial. 


5. (tie) Joseph Addai, Indianapolis – 4.6.  He has four fewer yards on 20 fewer carries than “starter” Dominic Rhodes.


The next players to take a look at are the backs with less than 50 carries, to see if perhaps they should be getting more touches on Sundays.  Here are the top five in yards per carry, with a minimum of 20 carries.  (Note: Michael Vick leads the league with a ridiculous 8.8 average on his 38 carries, but as a quarterback, it makes no sense to analyze him in this fashion.)


1. Jerious Norwood, Atlanta – 8.3.  Granted, a lot of his yards came on one long TD run and he plays behind a solid back in Warrick Dunn (4.5 YPC), but Norwood needs a bump from his 6.5 carries per game.  Anyone ripping off over eight yards every time he touches the ball has to be toting it 10-to-15 times a game. 


2. Michael Turner, San Diego – 6.8.  For those wondering why Tomlinson was on the sidelines while Turner burned up the clock Sunday night, look no further than this stat.  Turner is averaging almost twice as many yards per carry and is proving to be a monster even when the opponent knows what is coming.  Tomlinson has a lot of miles on him, so I would expect to see Turner get an increasing number of carries as the season goes along.


3. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville – 5.4.  Right now Taylor is still the main man for the Jags, but this is quickly becoming a timeshare.  Jones-Drew is already getting goal line looks (at all of 5’7”) and playing as the third-down back, so expect his touches to go up. 


4. Brandon Jacobs, NYG – 5.4.  The good news for Jacobs is that he looks like an elite every-down back, the bad news is that the guy ahead of him on the depth chart is on the preceding list.  As long as Barber is playing at a high level, if will be tough for Jacobs to get a ton of carries.


5. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina – 5.3.  He’s averaging over a yard more with each tote than starter DeShaun Foster (4.2), but suffered a recent ankle sprain that has derailed his takeover attempt. 


Bonus – LenDale White, Tennessee – 4.3.  White has the best YPC average on the Titans roster, so what are they waiting for?  The Titans will be lucky to win four games this year yet they are still rotating retread Travis Henry and Chris “Turf Toe” Brown as the starters.  The future is now, Tennessee.  Go with the Vince/LenDale backfield and see what happens.


Fewest Quarterback Sacks.  If you watch much NFL football, you know how critical quarterback protection is.  Whether teams use extra blockers, short drops, or simply run the ball all game, keeping the quarterback off of the turf is always a primary goal.  That said, some teams are doing a better job of it than others.  Daunte Culpepper was sacked 21 times in four games before being pulled as the starter.  Sack King David Carr has gone down 15 times in four games.  Jon Kitna has been sacked 19 times (five games), Charlie Frye 16 (five games), and Carson Palmer 15 (four games).  For each of those teams and quarterbacks, that is too many sacks.  Perhaps they need to look to the following four offenses for guidance, as each starting QB has taken five sacks or fewer so far this season:


Jake Plummer, Denver – 5 sacks in four games.  The Broncos run a lot of two tight end sets, move Plummer out of the pocket to create passing lanes (even if that lane is to throw it out of bounds), and, of course, constantly threaten defenses with their zone-blocking ground attack.


Phillip Rivers, San Diego – 5 sacks in four games.  The Chargers eliminate sacks by keeping Rivers out of obvious passing situations whenever possible.  A heavy dose of LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner has put San Diego in favorable down-and-distance most of the time, while Phillips’ underrated mobility has taken care of the rest.


Tom Brady, New England – 5 sacks in five games.  This is impressive.  Brady has a shaky group of receivers and has attempted 162 passes this year (to 110 for Plummer and 105 for Rivers), yet has taken only 5 sacks.  It is a testament to his decision-making and toughness, as well as his offensive line’s commitment to keeping him off his back.


Rex Grossman, Chicago – 4 sacks in five games.  I’ve heard about a million reasons why the Bears have been so good this year, but nobody seems to be talking about the pass protection Grossman is getting.  He’s thrown 152 passes and ranks second in the league in yards per attempt (8.2, behind only McNabb), which indicates that a lot of his passes are down the field, yet he’s only been sacked four times all season.  That is amazing. 


It is probably not a surprise to find that that the combined records of those four teams is 15-3.  Throw in the next two guys on the list, Drew Brees (6 sacks in five games) and Peyton Manning (7 sacks in five games) and that number goes to 24-4.  The lesson: keep the quarterback off of the deck at all costs.


(By the way, pass attempts per sack looks like this: Rex Grossman 38.0, Tom Brady 32.4, Brett Favre 29.0, Drew Brees 28.3, and Peyton Manning 24.4.  I guess that means we can stop blaming Favre’s struggles on his offensive line.)


Yards After the Catch/First Down Percentage.  Two intriguing stats for measuring receiving ability are yards after the catch and percentage of catches the result in first downs.  Both can indicate the value of a weapon in the passing game, but often point to very different types of players.  Check out the two lists:


Yards After the Catch (minimum 20 catches):


1. Larry Johnson, Kansas City – 14.2.  LJ hasn’t had much room to run on the ground, so the Chiefs have been getting it to him through the air.  The amazing thing here is that Johnson’s YAC is actually higher than his receiving average of 13.4, which shows how many balls he’s catching behind the actual line of scrimmage.  The lesson here: if you have a noodle-armed quarterback and a ravaged offensive line, run a lot of screen passes for your all-world back.


2. Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia – 12.6.  Westbrook has always been more receiver than running back anyway and Philly is fantastic at running the screen play.  The fact that he ranks first in YPC and second in YAC shows what a fantastic start Westbrook has had to the season.


3. Kevin Jones, Detroit – 10.2.  Think a running back that can catch is valuable?  Wait, don’t look at Detroit’s record when you answer that question. 


4. Greg Jennings, Green Bay – 8.9.  The new big play threat for Brett Favre is making a lot of things happen once the ball is in his hands.  Look for the Packers to exploit this by involving him in more slants and wide receiver screens.


5. Santana Moss, Washington – 8.0.  The prototypical “run after the catch” wideout, Moss benefited greatly from that big game against Jacksonville.


First Down Percentage (minimum 20 catches):


1. Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis – .952.  This stat is almost impossible to believe.  Wayne has caught 21 passes this year and a whopping 20 of them have resulted in a first down.  I didn’t even know that was possible. 


2. Braylon Edwards, Cleveland – .850.  Edwards has been making great strides this season and his ability to make catches for first downs is a great sign.


3. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona – .840.  If I had to throw to one guy in the NFL on third-and-13, it would be Fitzgerald.  Of course, now he’s out for two to five weeks.


4. Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis – .813.  Two Colts on this list, which goes to show how good Manning is at finding guys beyond the marker.  In the regular season, at least.


5. Marques Colston, New Orleans – .786.  How good has this guy been?  For a rookie to show up on this list is really saying something.  Throw in Jennings on the previous list and the NFL has been blessed with some surprisingly adept rookie wideouts this year.


Keep on eye on some of these stats on Sunday and see if they make a difference.  Watch some of the elite teams protect their quarterback, see what coaches do about their running games, and observe where quarterbacks go for big plays and first downs.  Sometimes the stats tell a pretty big story.


Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com.

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