The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.
Running back success rate
I first read this article more than a decade ago, but it had a huge impact on the way I think about NFL rushing attacks. In my opinion, the thinking that is outlined here continues to be solid and insightful:
The most common efficiency statistic is, quite predictably, the easiest to calculate: yards per carry. Divide total yards by number of carries and voila! Efficiency! And sure, this is a lot better than total yards because it doesn’t care how many carries you get per game – only what you do when you get those carries.
And that is where most commentaries on the efficiency of running backs end. But is that enough?
[T]he answer is no. Why not? Because some yards are inherently more important than other yards. For instance, if it’s 4th down and 2, and a running back rushes for 2 yards, that’s a pretty successful run. But if in that same situation a running back rushes for 4 yards, is it twice as important as rushing for 2 yards? Of course not. It’s certainly marginally better, but on fourth down, all that really matters is getting a first down, which 2 yards accomplishes just as well as 4 yards. But on first down and 10, 4 yards is much more valuable than 2 yards. Yards have different values depending on the situation.
The Running Back Success Rate Statistic
Here’s how Football Outsiders breaks down “Running Back Success Rate”:
- A play counts as a “Success” if it gains 40% of yards to go on first down, 60% of yards to go on second down, or 100% of yards to go on third or fourth down.
- If the team is behind by more than a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the benchmarks switch to 50%/65%/100%.
- If the team is ahead by any amount in the fourth quarter, the benchmarks switch to 30%/50%/100%.
For instance, regularly, if it’s 1st and 10, a rush of 4 yards or more is a success and less than 4 is a failure. On 2nd and 10, a rush of 6 yards or more is a success, and less is a failure. For a rush on 3rd or 4th down, anything less than a first down (or a touchdown in an “and goal” situation) is considered a failure. The metric also takes into consideration and accounts for the fact that yards become more or less important not just based on the situation of that specific play but also based on the situation of the game as a whole. For instance, when you’re ahead in the 4th quarter, yards on the early downs don’t matter as much as killing time. Thus, the definition of “success” is less stringent: 30% of yards to go on 1st down, etc. The inverse is the case if your team is behind in the fourth quarter.
Thus, as Football Outsiders notes, when it’s 3rd and 1 and a running back dives for 2 yards, that’s a very successful run and is rewarded as such by this metric whereas he is penalized by the “yards per carry” metric. This statistic, then, will give you a much better idea than yards per carry of how efficient a running back is at achieving “success” in the situations in which he finds himself within a game.
I often parse my descriptions of the Washington rushing attack by using words like ‘efficient’ or ‘inefficient’ and ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’. When I talk about efficiency, I’m usually focused on yards per carry, but when I focus on success, I’m focused on runs that extend or help extend an offensive drive or one that results directly in a score.
Like many people, I’m aware that last year’s Commanders offense was pretty good (12th) in rushing yards per game, but not so good (28th) in yards per carry. In other words, Washington rushed the ball a lot of times for quite a lot of yards, but not very efficiently. A lot of people point to this and say that the team’s running game was not very good. I would agree that it was not highly efficient, but I wonder if it was successful.
I’ve been re-watching some 2022 games this week, and I watched three games this week in which Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson were both healthy, and my eyes told me that, while the team wasn’t generating a lot of yards-per-carry, they were often having a lot of success by helping to move the chains.
Consider these plays from the Monday Night Football game against the Eagles — one of the games that I watched on replay this week:
2nd & 7 at WSH 28
(11:36 - 1st) (Shotgun) B.Robinson right guard to WAS 34 for 6 yards (H.Reddick; K.White).
3rd & 1 at WSH 34
(10:58 - 1st) (Shotgun) B.Robinson up the middle to WAS 38 for 4 yards (M.Tuipulotu).
3rd & 4 at WSH 44
(9:04 - 1st) (Shotgun) A.Gibson right guard to WAS 48 for 4 yards (F.Cox, J.Hargrave).
2nd & 10 at WSH 48
(8:14 - 1st) (Shotgun) B.Robinson right guard to PHI 44 for 8 yards (T.Edwards; J.Hargrave).
1st & Goal at PHI 5
(5:35 - 1st) A.Gibson left guard to PHI 1 for 4 yards (M.Williams).
2nd & Goal at PHI 1
(5:00 - 1st) Antonio Gibson 1 Yd Rush
2nd & 1 at WSH 46
(14:19 - 2nd) B.Robinson left guard to WAS 49 for 3 yards (M.Tuipulotu; J.Hargrave).
1st & 10 at PHI 30
(12:19 - 2nd) (Shotgun) A.Gibson right tackle to PHI 25 for 5 yards (M.Tuipulotu, M.Epps).
2nd & 5 at PHI 25
(11:40 - 2nd) (Shotgun) B.Robinson right guard to PHI 21 for 4 yards (J.Hargrave; T.Edwards).
3 consecutive successful runs for a 1st down
- 1st & 10 at WSH 14
(8:36 - 2nd) B.Robinson up the middle to WAS 19 for 5 yards (J.Hargrave).
- 2nd & 5 at WSH 19
(7:53 - 2nd) (Shotgun) A.Gibson right tackle to WAS 23 for 4 yards (F.Cox).
- 3rd & 1 at WSH 23
(7:19 - 2nd) (Shotgun) B.Robinson up the middle to WAS 25 for 2 yards (R.Quinn).
MNF, 2nd quarter— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) May 22, 2023
3 consecutive runs for a 1st down pic.twitter.com/dZ8dyr0yGm
4 consecutive successful runs for a touchdown
- 4th & 1 at PHI 16
(2:18 - 2nd) C.Samuel right tackle to PHI 14 for 2 yards (K.White, T.Edwards).
- 1st & 10 at PHI 14
(1:54 - 2nd) B.Robinson up the middle to PHI 3 for 11 yards (M.Epps, P.Johnson).
- 1st & Goal at PHI 3
(1:42 - 2nd) (Shotgun) B.Robinson right guard to PHI 1 for 2 yards (M.Epps).
- 2nd & Goal at PHI 1
(1:39 - 2nd) Brian Robinson Jr. 1 Yd Rush
MNF vs Eagles, 2nd quarter— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) May 22, 2023
4 runs, 16 yards
Touchdown to take 17-14 lead
4th & 1 at the 16 yard line pic.twitter.com/9eTe9kfSKk
1st & 10 at the 15-yard line pic.twitter.com/0pYGcPoZuQ— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) May 22, 2023
1st & goal inside the 4-yard line pic.twitter.com/c4kirgVDUE— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) May 22, 2023
2nd & goal from the half-yard line— Bill-in-Bangkok (@billhorgan2005) May 22, 2023
3 consecutive runs for 1st down
- 1st & 10 at WSH 20
(13:30 - 3rd) B.Robinson left tackle to WAS 26 for 6 yards (T.Edwards; K.White).
- 2nd & 4 at WSH 26
(12:52 - 3rd) B.Robinson left tackle to WAS 29 for 3 yards (T.Edwards).
- 3rd & 1 at WSH 29
(12:14 - 3rd) (Shotgun) B.Robinson up the middle to WAS 31 for 2 yards (F.Cox).
- 2nd & 8 at PHI 15
(7:56 - 3rd) A.Gibson left end pushed ob at PHI 8 for 7 yards (C.Gardner-Johnson).
- 3rd & 1 at PHI 8
(7:16 - 3rd) A.Gibson up the middle to PHI 6 for 2 yards (R.Quinn, J.Hargrave).
- 1st & 10 at WSH 25
(14:46 - 4th) B.Robinson up the middle to WAS 30 for 5 yards (M.Epps; J.Hargrave).
- 2nd & 9 at PHI 49
(12:59 - 4th) (Shotgun) Direct snap to C.Samuel. C.Samuel right end to PHI 43 for 6 yards (H.Reddick).
- 1st & 10 at PHI 47
(1:33 - 4th) (Shotgun) B.Robinson left guard to PHI 43 for 4 yards (M.Williams).
In this game, Washington put together a 13-play drive, a 12-play drive, a 16-play drive, an 8-play drive to get a field goal to end the 1st half, and a 14-play drive, and the running backs had a 67% success rate on rushing plays in a drive that was cut short by a Taylor Heinicke interception. Clearly, Washington had a lot of success keeping offensive drives alive in this game.
That said, the running game against the Eagles on MNF was not very efficient — the team had an overall 3.1 yards-per-carry average, and Brian Robinson, at 3.3 ypc, was the team’s most efficient runner. This is an example of a running game that is very productive (49 carries; 142 yards) and successful (55%), without being efficient.
For the game, the Commanders running backs carried the ball 44 times (Heinicke had 5 carries), so these 24 ‘successful’ plays (using FO criteria) represented a 55% success rate. Is that good or bad?
Statistics from Football Outsiders
That 55% success rate against the Eagles on MNF turns out to be above average for an NFL running back in 2022. For the season, per Football Outsiders (FO), no one had a higher success rate than Atlanta’s Cordarrelle Patterson, at 60%, and the lowest guy on the list, at #42, was James Robinson of the Jaguars, at 35%. The 55% rate achieved by Washington’s running backs against the Packers would have registered as 7th-best among qualifying running backs (min 100 carries) if it had been for one player over a full season.
In actuality, according to FO, on 205 runs, Robinson’s season-long success rate was 53%, tied for 14th with Latavius Murray.
Gibson finished the season with 149 carries and a 50% success rate, putting him into a tie for #22 on the list.
A little quick math:
- Robinson = 205 x 53% = 109 successful runs
- Gibson = 149 x 50% = 74 successful runs
185 successful / 354 total carries = 52.25% success rate
The combined success rate of 52% for Robinson & Gibson would have ranked 16th (out of 42 backs listed) if it belonged to a single player.
In other words, while the Commanders ranked only 28th in efficiency (yards per carry) in 2022, they seem to have ranked slightly above average in success rate.
Eric Bieniemy’s 2022 running back
I mentioned that no one had a higher success rate than Cordarrelle Patterson, but there was one other back in the list who matched Patterson’s 60% success rate — Isaiah Pacheco of the Kansas City Chiefs. Pacheco had about 40 more attempts last season than his teammates Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire combined (neither qualified for the 100-carry min to make the FO list for 2022) and achieved 60% success according to Football Outsiders.
What might this mean for the Commanders rushing attack in 2023?
This raises a question in my mind. Was the high success rate of 7th-round rookie Pacheco due to his incredible skills, or was it perhaps a product of Eric Bieniemy’s scheme?
The most straightforward thing I could think of was to check the results of previous seasons.
- Clyde Edwards-Helaire ranked #6 with a 59% success rate
- Darrel Williams randed #8 at 58%
- Antonio Gibson ranked #23 at 52%
- Clyde Edwards-Helaire ranked #9 with a 56% success rate
- Antonio Gibson ranked #21 at 52%
There seems to be some consistency here. In 3 seasons, Gibson has been in the 50-52% range, while Bieniemy has had three backs in the 56-60% range.
Rookie Brian Robinson had a good rookie season at 53%, but he didn’t match Pacheco’s 60% mark.
This offers at least the suggestion that former running back and running backs coach Eric Bieniemy may be able to raise the success rate of Washington’s running backs — as well as overall performance (Pacheco ranked 9th or 10th in most Football Outsiders performance measurement statistics for running backs in 2022).
What do you think?
What do you expect from the Commanders rushing attack in 2023?
It will be better than 2022
It will be about the same as 2022
It will be worse than 2022
Which Commanders running back will have the most yards from scrimmage in 2023?
Chris Rodriguez Jr.