A Sabermetric Evaluation of Redskins Big 3 Running Backs

Sabermetrics is the art of using advanced, infrequently used statistics to evaluate players. They first became popular in baseball, but have gradually shifted to use in all of the Big 4 sports.01-vetrbs_medium Baseball has WAR, hockey has Corsi, and basketball has Effective Field Goal %. But what about football? Christopher Harris over at ESPN recently wrote an article advocating for the usage of advanced statistics for football. He does a good analysis of the top guys, but I wanted to get a deeper look into our RB situation. So jump down to check out whether or not our aging group of running backs can carry the load.

A quick primer. The stats I am going to use are YCo, YCo/Att, YCo%, MT and Att/MT. YCo is how many yards the player gains after first contact. YCo%, arguable the more important statistic, is the percentage of a players total yards that he gained after first contact. MT is how many tackles the player "missed", which means either broken or avoided tackles.











Clinton Portis










Larry Johnson (KC)










Larry Johnson (CIN)










Willie Parker










So what does this all mean? A few things, actually. Lets go player by player...


  • Clinton Portis had a career low in yards, attempts and touchdowns, and tied his career low for games played. But it looks like a lot of this wasn't his fault. He had a fairly average 4.1 yards per attempt, but had an extremely high 2.9 yards gained after first contact. That means that he was on average touched by a defensive player after only 1.2 yards past the line of scrimmage. Portis, who thrives on beating out his opponents and avoiding contact, wasn't given any room to work.
  • Once again, the stats show that Portis was hit early and often. He gained 71% of his yards after being hit. What this shows is promise. When he was healthy, Portis knew he was going to get hit hard, but kept pushing. Its a good sign from #26 and I expect it to continue this season.
  • Remember when I said he thrived on avoiding contact? Yeah, I guess not. With only a measly 6 tackles avoided, you'd be lucky to see Portis avoid a tackle even once a game. He would only miss one every 21 attempts.


  • Larry Johnson's 2009 was clearly a tale of two seasons. Playing in Kansas City, he was on the field for almost every snap. And, like Portis, he was hit. A lot. Johnson only managed to get 0.7 yards past the line of scrimmage before first contact. Because of this, he has the highest YCo/Att and YCo%. Johnson is clearly a between the tackles runner who pounds through the line to gain yards. But he needs more help than that to succeed. He also missed a ridiculously low 5 tackles, missing one every 27 rushes.
  • When Johnson was cut and picked up by the Bengals, everything started to go right. Clearly Cincy is better than KC in every way possible, (as proof by the O-Line giving him an extra 0.6 yards before contact) but Johnson showed a huge spike. His Y/Att jumped 1.5 yards, and the % of yards gained after first contact dropped 8 percent. He also missed a tackle every 8 attempts, a really promising number.
  • The key stat here: In 7 games with KC, 132 attempts. In 7 games with Cincy, 46 attempts. When he isn't getting pounded 20 times a game, he is successful. He is a super talented running back who has been run into the ground in KC. He needs less carries to succeed.


  • Fast Willie Parker got some really good help from his O-Line, getting 1.5 yards past the line of scrimmage before first contact. But once he was hit, that was about it for him. He only gained 2.5 yards on average after that contact, so only 62% of his yards came after contact. He got his nickname for a reason. At 5'10, 210, Parker relies on beating out the defenders, not going through them. And for the most part, this worked. With one missed tackle every 14 snaps, Willie was pretty average at getting around the defenders.

What to Expect this Season

Basically, these stats are pretty positive. First and foremost, in order for the run game to succeed, our Offensive Line needs to play well. Getting a good push and making sure that our guys can gain speed before getting hit might be the most important part of our running game. Next, I am really excited about LJ. He isn't going to get the majority of the carries, but when he touches the football he should really help this team. Also, this just proves that we cant have one back taking all the carries. We need to be a RBBC team to succeed. Next, Parker can be a very important asset to this team if hes healthy. I think that we will keep all three guys and Shanahan will go into the season ready to play off each of their strengths. And last but not least, something that the stats cant show, is how hard these guys have worked this off-season and how important the sense of competition is. They are coming in fit and ready to fight, which always bring out the best in people. Do I think our rushing attack is going to dominate teams? No. But I do think it will keep defenses on their toes and give #5 the chance to succeed in this system and in DC.

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