Saturday, March 20, 2010

RBIs and Touchdowns

Joe Posnanski recently posted a nice article about the relative lack of value of RBIs, something that virtually any baseball fan with more than rudimentary knowledge of the game understands. These two paragraphs, in particular, helped solidify in my mind a similar idea I'd had for a while about football:

But it really isn’t so. Take this situation: One out, Rick Manning cracks a line drive single. Duane Kuiper hits a high chopper in front of the plate, he’s out, but Manning takes second. Jim Norris, with first base open and two outs, works for a walk. Manning and Norris move up on a wild pitch. Pitcher works around Andre Thornton, and he walks. Then, with a 3-1 count and the bases loaded, the pitcher has to throw a fastball that catches too much of the plate, and Rico Carty rolls a single between short and third, scoring two runs.

That’s a fairly typical sequence, I would guess. In our mind and in our statbook, Carty is the hero — two RBIs. He is, in fan and media shorthand, RESPONSIBLE for those runs. But he isn’t. Carty’s single didn’t make those two runs happen. Those two runs scored because of a series of events, and Carty’s single was just the last of those events.

I've emphasized that last sentence to drive home the notion that I have the same feeling regarding touchdowns. Last season, Adrian Peterson had 1,383 yards, a 4.3 average, and 18 touchdowns. In 2008, he had 1,760 yards, a 4.8 average, and 10 touchdowns. And I'd wager that at least a third of football fans would point to his 18 TDs in 2009 as a positive sign, despite the lower yardage and yards per carry.

I don't. I think they're meaningless, except to fantasy football players -- kinda like the RBI is to fantasy baseballers.

We've all seen drives where the quarterback passes and the featured back runs the ball down to the 1-yard-line. Then, in comes Mike Alstott (or Jerome Bettis or Craig Heyward) to plunge it in from the one. Alstott is the Rico Carty of this scenario. To paraphrase JoePo: Alstott's run didn’t make that touchdown happen. That touchdown was scored because of a series of events and Alstott's run was just the last of those events.

To be certain, there are times when the player scoring the touchdown is the "hero" of the drive and fully deserving of the stat bump and the accolades that come with scoring the TD. But taking another look at Peterson's 18 TDs in 2009, nine of them came from one yard out and only four came from further than five yards out. Peterson's good, to be certain, but a lot of backs could have scored from that distance, just as a lot of players can hit a single -- like Rico Carty did -- and drive in two runs in JoePo's scenario. All of which isn't to say AP's not a great player. He is, but it's not because he scored 18 TDs last year.

This is also why I've been slow to adapt to the notion, now professed by the guys at Pro-Football-Reference, that a TD should be worth 20 adjusted yards (instead of 10). To me, a touchdown doesn't require much more skill than any other run and shouldn't be rewarded in the stats. Yes, it is more difficult to gain a yard on the one-yard-line than it is on the 50, and I'm willing to give the 10-yard bump for that, but 20 just seems like too much to me.

Finally, JoePo goes on in his article to name a few situations where teams that added players who had poor averages put up big RBI numbers actually scored fewer runs the next season. I thought I'd see if there was any similar correlation in football. I did a search of players who scored more than 15 rushing TDs ("high RBI totals") but averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry ("low batting average/OBP") and got this list of nine players. (The Redskins apparently love these guys!) Did they improve their team's scoring the year they scored so many TDs? Let's see:

John Riggins: 24 TDs in 1983
1983 Redskins: 33.8 points per game
1982 Redskins: 21.1 ppg

Terry Allen: 21 TDs in 1996
1996 Redskins: 22.8 ppg
1995 Redskins: 20.4 ppg

George Rogers: 18 TDs in 1986
1986 Redskins: 23.0 ppg
1985 Redskins: 18.6 ppg

LaDainian Tomlinson: 17 TDs in 2004
2004 Chargers: 27.9 ppg
2003 Chargers: 19.6 ppg

Shaun Alexander: 16 TDs in 2002
2002 Seahawks: 22.2 ppg
2001 Seahawks: 18.8 ppg

Pete Banaszak: 16 TDs in 1975
1975 Raiders: 26.8 ppg
1974 Raiders: 25.4 ppg

Lenny Moore: 16 TDs in 1964
1964 Colts: 30.6 ppg
1963 Colts: 22.6 ppg

Karim-Abdul Jabbar: 16 TDs in 1997
1997 Dolphins: 21.2 ppg
1996 Dolphins: 21.2 ppg

Lendale White: 16 TDs in 2008
2008 Titans: 23.4 ppg
2007 Titans: 18.8 ppg

Well, that's not quite what I was expecting. In every situation except one (the Dolphins scored exactly 339 points in both 1996 and 1997), the team in the high-TD year scored more points than in the previous year -- and it usually wasn't even close. My only redeeming thought is that, unlike an "RBI machine," a high-TD featured runner can score around a third to a quarter of his team's points, compared to accounting for only about one-sixth to one-seventh of a team's RBI total, which is all most hitters can manage. Thus, with an outlying high-TD season, a high-TD back can have a bigger impact on his team's overall scoring than the RBI machine. I might also claim that five of these nine players were just barely under the 4.0 yards per carry mark (3.87 or better), so it's not like they were truly awful. And I'm not looking up any other team-related improvements that might have accounted for the increase in scoring. If I found a way to incorporate Adrian Peterson's 2008-09 seasons into this mix, I'd see that the Vikings scored 470 points in 2009 (when Peterson scored 18 TDs) and 379 in 2008 (when Peterson scored 10 TDs). But I think we all know who was responsible for that.

Maybe a wider search using this list (greater than 12 rushing TDs and less than 3.75 yards per carry) would shed some more light on the subject, but that's for another day. I'll still draft AP #1 overall in my fantasy football league, but I'll prefer if he has a season like 2008 than like he did in 2009.

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