By Jonathan Adler
On Monday Night Football this week, while the mighty Browns were humbled (for the 14th time in 15 games) against the Ravens, commentators Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, and Mike Tirico did their best to keep the broadcast interesting. During the second half, they discussed what they believed to be an oddity: some of this season’s leading rushers are playing on some of the least successful teams. To illustrate their point, they cited top-10 rushers like Tennessee’s Chris Johnson (6.7 yards/attempt, 3 team wins), San Francisco’s Frank Gore (5.6 yards/attempt, 4 team wins), and St. Louis’s Steven Jackson (4.8 yards/attempt, 1 team win). With these players in mind, it does look like some powerful backs are having trouble carrying their teams to victory.
But how unusual is a season in which unsuccessful teams feature good running backs? Is there normally a relationship between rushing success and team success?
I compiled data from the first half of the 2009 and 2008 seasons and performed a regression to examine the relationship between rushing success and team wins. Through the first eight games of the 2009 season, there is no statistical correlation between rushing success (measured by yards/attempt) and team success (wins).
Contrary to the MNF broadcast’s opinion, 2009 isn’t unique. The first eight games of 2008 tell a pretty similar story: there’s no significant relationship between the success of a team’s RB and its win total. The lesson here is that good teams sometimes feature bad rushers, and weak teams sometimes have Pro-Bowlers in their backfields.
While it’s interesting that big names like Johnson, Gore, and Jackson are trapped on bad teams, it’s not unusual. Linking an individual running back’s success to the success of his team is a somewhat dubious connection to make. But during a slow broadcast, it’s tough to blame the guys in the booth from turning to less-than-spectacular material.