YPC Leaders Since 1970 at 100/120/150 Carries

I’ve been curious about YPC leaders over the years, particularly as they’re sorted through increasing numbers of carries. Over the next two days, I will look at the YPC leaders using six different carry minimum thresholds: 100, 120, and 150 today, and 180, 220, and 280 carries tomorrow. These cutoffs weren’t arrived at in an analytically rigorous way, just through instinct and personal judgment. I ran a number of different carry thresholds and simply tried to keep my statistical eyes peeled; in my view, these are at least 6 of the minimums where interesting changes seemed to emerge.

As a general rule, though not an absolute one, I’m in the camp that regards YPC as, at best, a questionable stat when it comes to assessing skill and performance, and at worst a misleading and even bunkum stat, to borrow a term from Chase and the crew over at Intentional Rounding. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting YPC is useless. In fact in some narrow contexts I think it’s even key. But I think it’s woefully overused and over relied on, and I do regard it with suspicion when it comes to assessing rushing and running back value and effectiveness, particularly in “real-game” situations. I think the same holds for mobile quarterbacks, too.

I decided to look at YPC leaders for the 46 seasons since the merger was completed, 1970-2015. Again, no special reason, just to make things more manageable. This would probably get really interesting if we included all pre-merger seasons, but I didn’t do that here. If anyone does, kudos. At any rate, here are the YPC leaders since 1970, sorted at 6 different carry thresholds.

The table below sorts for a minimum of 100 carries.

Thoughts at 100 Carries

At a 100-carry minimum interesting things start happening immediately. There are two 2-way ties, 1998 and 2009. The ’98 tie between Garrison Hearst and Terrell Davis will never be broken even when we get to the most restrictive sort in this exercise, 280 carries. In ’98 Hearst had 310 carries, Davis 392, both at 5.1 YPC. The 2009 tie between Jamaal Charles and Felix Jones at 5.9 YPC will be broken when we sort for a minimum of 120 carries just below, since Jones only had 116 carries in ’09.

Of the 48 players who appear at the 100-carry minimum, 7 are quarterbacks who led the league in YPC a total of 12 seasons, with Michael Vick the clear heavyweight with a whopping 5 YPC-leading seasons in 2002, ’04, ’05, ’06 and 2010. Randall Cunningham has 2 YPC-leading seasons in 1989 and ’90, and Bobby Douglass shows up the earliest of all quarterbacks with 6.9 YPC on 141 carries for 968 rushing yards in 1972.

As we might expect, efficiency is higher when we sort for fewer carries, and at the 100-carry minimum there are 14 seasons of over 6.0 YPC, 2 of which are over 7.0 YPC and 2 others over 8.0 YPC. 10 of those 14 seasons over 6.0 YPC at this minimum were posted by quarterbacks, with the 9 highest all posted by quarterbacks. No surprises there, but it’s interesting that Douglass’ 6.9 YPC in ’72 held up for 18 years before Randall Cunningham finally broke it in 1990, and it took another 14 years for Michael Vick to top Cunningham’s mark.

Bobby Douglass’ 141 carries in ’72 remains a single-season record for quarterbacks. He averaged 10.1 carries per game for 14 games, a mark that’s never been seriously threatened in 44 years. Before I ran these numbers I half expected to see Colin Kaepernick show up somewhere, but in fact Kaepernick’s best rushing season, 2014, went for 6.1 YPC on 104 carries, easily bested by Russell Wilson that year who posted 7.2 YPC on 118 carries.

I was surprised to see that 6 seasons of over 300 carries, all by running backs of course, still led the league in YPC even at this free-for-all 100-carry minimum. Those 6 RBs read like a Who’s Who of Modern Era greats, with Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, Terrell Davis, and O.J. Simpson leading the way. Garrison Hearst, not a Modern Era great but a damn good running back, also posts a 300-carry season that survives a 100-carry sort, the 1998 tie with Terrell Davis at 5.1 YPC that I mentioned above. I expected to see O.J. Simpson’s ’73 season leading the league at 6.0 YPC, but was reminded that in ’73 Mercury Morris posted 6.4 YPC on 149 carries, so Morris leads that year until we sort for a minimum of 150 carries.

The table below sorts for a minimum of 120 carries.

Thoughts at 120 Carries

7 of the 12 seasons led by quarterbacks at the 100-carry minimum fall away and yield to running backs when we sort for just 20 more carries a season. Randall Cunningham’s 1990 YPC lead at 100 carries gets bumped by Bo Jackson’s 1990 season, but just barely since Jackson only rushed 125 times that year at 5.6 yards per carry. Jackson never actually did that much rushing, averaging just 13.6 carries a game for 38 games and never playing anything close to a complete season in 4 years. Just a few reasons among many that I don’t rank Jackson among Modern Era greats, even though he possessed insane talent.

4 of the surviving quarterback seasons at 120 carries are pretty recent, with Michael Vick’s 2006 season leading the way at 8.4 YPC on 123 carries and the “oldest of the recent” being Vick’s ’04 season at 7.5 YPC on exactly 120 carries. Bobby Douglass in 1972 holds fast with 141 carries at 6.9 YPC, and as I said above won’t fall away until the next minimum, 150 carries.

In a huge leap in carries, Barry Sanders’ 2,053 yards on 331 carries at 6.1 YPC in 1997 supplants Steve McNair’s 101 carries at 6.4 YPC that year. Jamaal Charles emerges as the leader in 2010 with 230 carries at 6.4 YPC, bumping Michael Vick’s 6.8 YPC on exactly 100 carries. At 120 carries Sanders also replaces Charlie Garner’s 1995 season of 5.4 YPC on 108 carries with another big leap in workload, as Barry posted 4.8 YPC on 314 carries and rushed for 1,500 yards. Sanders’ rushing workload that year represents a 190.7% increase over Garner’s, but his YPC represents only an 11.1% decrease in efficiency. Sanders’ 4.8 YPC in ’95 is the lowest of the entire 120-carry sort, and in fact at this minimum there are still only 4 seasons below 5.0 YPC.

I wondered if Ricky Watters would show up anywhere in this whole exercise, and he does here. Watters’ 1992 season of 4.9 YPC on 206 carries replaces Heath Sherman’s 112 carries at 5.2 YPC. I’d all but forgotten the Eagles’ Heath Sherman, but was reminded of him here. He rushed for 2,130 career yards in 5 seasons.

Adrian Peterson makes his first appearance at the 120-carry minimum with his 2007 rookie season, rushing for 1,341 yards on 231 carries at 5.6 YPC in 14 games, bumping Jerious Norwood’s 6.0 YPC on 103 carries.

The table below sorts for a minimum of 150 carries.

Thoughts at 150 Carries

At the 150 carry minimum all quarterbacks are finally eliminated, with Bobby Douglass bumped in 1972 by Franco Harris’ 5.6 YPC on 188 carries. O.J. Simpson replaces Mercury Morris in ’73 as well with his (Simpson’s) historic 2,003-yard rushing season on 332 carries at 6.0 YPC.

I hadn’t expected to see Eric Dickerson’s ’87 season emerge at the 150-carry sort, but I was reminded what an under-appreciated rushing effort it is. Dickerson rushed for 1,288 yards on 283 carries at 4.6 YPC in just 12 games that year at 107.3 yards per game. His ’87 season bumps Darrin Nelson’s 131 carries at 4.9 YPC. As it turns out, Dickerson’s ’87 season weathers every sort from here on out, all the way to a minimum 280 carries.

At the 150-carry minimum, a 3-way tie at 4.9 YPC emerges in 1981 between Kenny King, Billy Sims and Wilbert Montgomery, as Tony Nathan’s 5.3 YPC on 147 carries is eliminated. Montgomery and Sims shouldered similar workloads that year (286 and 296 carries, respectively) and posted similar rushing and scrimmage production, Montgomery posting 1,402 rushing yards and 1,923 scrimmage yards, and Sims posting 1,437 rushing yards and 1,888 scrimmage yards. Kenny King is the odd man out in this 3-way tie, with 828 yards rushing on 170 carries and 1,044 yards from scrimmage. Obviously Kenny King will be eliminated when we sort next for 180 carries.

In another big leap in carries, Robert Griffin’s 120 carries at 6.8 YPC in 2012 give way to Adrian Peterson’s 2,097 rushing yards on 348 carries at 6.0 YPC. That’s a 190% increase in rushing workload against a mere 13.3% decrease in rushing efficiency. Obviously Griffin is a QB, not a rushing specialist, but I mention the workload difference simply to highlight Peterson’s remarkable job of sustaining efficiency that year. At 150 carries AP is in a 2-way tie with C.J. Spiller, who is a running back and posted 6.0 YPC on 207 carries, a workload 40.5% lighter than Peterson’s. Still, a solid rushing season for Spiller, who posted 1,703 yards from scrimmage.

At the 150-carry minimum Barry Sanders and James Brooks emerge in 1990 in a tie at 5.1 YPC, as Bo Jackson’s 1990 season of 125 carries at 5.6 YPC is eliminated. And Maurice Jones-Drew’s 2006 season of 166 carries at 5.7 YPC bumps Michael Vick’s 8.4 YPC on 123 carries. In fact at the 150-carry minimum Vick’s last 2 remaining YPC-leading seasons are eliminated. His ’06 season I just mentioned as well as his 120 carries at 7.4 YPC in 2004, which is supplanted by the Titans’ Chris Brown with 220 carries at 4.9 YPC.

Check back tomorrow for a look at the leaders at the 180, 220, and 280-carry thresholds.

Speak Your Mind