Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Am I expecting too much from Michigan's running backs?

Brandon Minor was Michigan's most successful running back of the Rich Rodriguez era.

If you're a frequent reader, I'm sure you're aware that I've been unhappy with the performance of some of the running backs over the past few seasons.  Due to some recent conversations with fellow fans, I started to wonder: am I expecting too much from Michigan running backs? 

So I thought I'd do some research.  Below you'll find a listing of the explosive runs (20+ yards) by each starting running back for the last couple decades.  I don't have access to each and every run, so what I used was a player's longest explosive play from each particular game.  The weakness here is that a player with two 20+ yard runs in one game (say, a 50-yarder and a 25-yarder) only has the 50-yarder listed.  Additionally, the maximum number of plays to be listed is 13 (the most games Michigan has played in any given season) and the minimum is 0.

NOTE: I listed each of the team's top few rushers in the Rodriguez years just for recent comparison's sake.  However, the player with the most carries is highlighted in yellow.

Denard Robinson 2010 (256 carries): 87, 72, 47, 32, 32, 29, 24, 20, 20
Michael Cox 2010 (6 carries): 35
Michael Shaw 2010 (75 carries): 50, 39, 21
Vincent Smith 2010 (136 carries): 56
Carlos Brown 2009 (81 carries): 90, 41
Michael Cox 2009 (13 carries): 57, 24
Brandon Minor 2009 (96 carries): 55, 32
Denard Robinson 2009 (31 carries): 38, 36
Michael Shaw 2009 (42 carries): 22
Vincent Smith 2009 (48 carries): 37
Sam McGuffie 2008 (118 carries): 29, 26, 21
Brandon Minor 2008 (109 carries): 45, 40, 36, 34, 32, 21, 20
Michael Shaw 2008 (41 carries): 48, 30
Mike Hart 2007 (265 carries): 61, 54, 37, 23, 23
Mike Hart 2006 (318 carries): 54, 42, 33, 23, 23, 22, 21
Mike Hart 2005 (150 carries): 64, 20
Mike Hart 2004 (282 carries): 34, 33, 32, 26
Chris Perry 2003 (338 carries): 63, 41, 30, 27, 25, 21
Chris Perry 2002 (267 carries): 57, 43, 34, 23
B.J. Askew 2001 (199 carries): 30, 30, 25, 20
Anthony Thomas 2000 (319 carries): 68, 61, 54, 35, 32, 28, 25, 21
Anthony Thomas 1999 (301 carries): 60, 39, 31, 26, 23, 20
Anthony Thomas 1998 (166 carries): 80, 69, 59, 36, 24
Chris Howard 1997 (199 carries): 51, 30, 29, 28, 28, 27
Clarence Williams 1996 (202 carries): 32, 30, 26, 21
Tim Biakabutuka 1995 (303 carries): 60, 47, 47, 44, 37, 35, 34, 20, 20
Tyrone Wheatley 1994 (210 carries): 67, 36, 34, 24, 24, 22, 21, 20
Tyrone Wheatley 1993 (207 carries): 59, 47, 45, 43, 26, 25, 25
Tyrone Wheatley 1992 (185 carries): 88, 82, 54, 30, 23, 22
Ricky Powers 1991 (240 carries): 48, 39, 36, 33, 21

Next you'll see a chart of the top running back's rushing average for each of the past 20 seasons.  You'll notice that after Tyrone Wheatley and Tshimanga Biakabutuka departed, the running backs usually alternated one or two good years with one or two poor years.

Do those numbers have anything to do with wins?  Probably not.  The same chart as above, overlaid with the wins for each year:


1. Denard Robinson is awesome, as if you didn't already know.  He had a 20+ yard run in nine out of the thirteen games he played in 2010.  In the last twenty years, that number has been matched only by Tshimanga Biakabutuka in 1995.

2. Anthony Thomas was more of a big play guy than I thought.  He had at least seven rushes of 50+ yards in his career.

3. The number of carries for Michigan running backs dwindled greatly in the Rodriguez years.  From 1991 to 2007, eight running backs had 250+ carries in a season.  From 2008-2010, the highest number of carries for a running back was Vincent Smith's 136 in 2010.  Even if you combine the top two running backs from the past three seasons, the highest total is McGuffie/Minor's 227 back in 2008.

4. As far as Michigan running backs go, Vincent Smith falls at the bottom of the heap when it comes to explosive plays.  In his two seasons at Michigan, he has two 20+ yard runs.  The closest one to Smith is the 2005 version of Mike Hart, who missed several games due to injury and got only 150 carries.  Hart's 64-yarder and 20-yarder in that year are actually pretty close to Smith's longest two runs from 2010 - a 56-yard touchdown and a 19-yard run.

5. For being an offensive genius, Rich Rodriguez sure didn't have a great effect on Michigan's running backs.  I don't think there's any question that Michigan's best running back during his tenure was Brandon Minor, but Minor (109) split carries pretty evenly with Sam McGuffie (118) in 2008.  That was followed by a 2009 in which no running back carried the ball more than 100 times.  Injuries played a big part in the production (or lack thereof) from Minor, Carlos Brown, McGuffie, Shaw, etc.

6. I'm probably overreacting a little bit to yards per carry.  There are certainly more important aspects to winning football games than simple yards per carry, like turnovers, defense, quarterback play, etc.  For example, Michigan didn't lose 13 games over the past two seasons just because Vincent Smith has been a mediocre running back - the horrible defense played the biggest role in losing most of those games.  But at the same time, the only players with the same or worse rushing averages than Smith were:

a) the often forgotten Clarence Williams in '96 on an eight-win team
b) Anthony Thomas in '99, whose 4.3 yards a carry was a full yard below each of his surrounding seasons
c) Chris Perry's subpar junior season in '02
d) Mike Hart's injury-plagued '05 year
e) Sam McGuffie's freshman year in '08, when he suffered from concussions and a horrible unit around him


Well, I do. 

But so do defenses.  When teams don't respect your running back's ability to make big plays, they can concentrate on stopping the pass.  Or, in the case of Denard Robinson-led teams, they can concentrate on stopping the quarterback.  The lack of a big-play threat to play alongside Robinson in the backfield limits his abilities to be as effective a runner as possible.  Imagine a zone read option offense with Tim Biakabutuka or Tyrone Wheatley standing next to Denard Robinson in the backfield.  Which one do you defend?  Or do you curl up into a fetal position and pretend you pulled a hamstring?

Furthermore, big plays take away the opportunity for a team to bog down going from Point A to Point B.  Long runs aren't just fun to watch - they serve a purpose.  A guy who moves the ball in small chunks might be a fine running back, but at some point his short gains might force a few punts when the offense fails to get a first down. 

Clearly, a guy like Biakabutuka doesn't guarantee you a big play every time he starts a new series.  But he can move the ball in large chunks, and his presence opens up the play action passing game and keeps the defense off balance.


Better running back play.  That's the bottom line.  Over the last twenty years, Michigan's running backs have alternated good years with mediocre ones.  On the heels of a poor year from the Wolverines' backs, it seems Michigan is ready for an upswing in running back production.  Hoke seems committed to running the ball like Michigan used to do, and unlike a season such as 2008, the offensive line should be decent, despite losing a couple senior starters in Steve Schilling and Perry Dorrestein.  Whether it's Michael Shaw, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Stephen Hopkins, or someone else, the starting running back in 2011 should be better than in 2010.


  1. Good stuff Thunder!

    Interesting to compare Vince Smith and Mike Hart.

    Their sophomore years are pretty similar in your big play analysis and in their freshman years their big play rate (per carry) is also similar (Smiths is technically much more impressive because Hart had nearly 6 times the number of carries, but we're talking about a sample size of one for Smith - close enough).

    So, big play ability is indistinguishable between the two. But the YPC must have been much better for Hart... right? Well, combined over their first 2 years Hart was 4.9 and Smith was 4.8.

    Both were impacted by injuries in their sophomore year.

    Both are small guys who were rated as 3-stars in High School but made an immediate impression and quickly got hyped by fans.

    Conclusion: Vincent Smith = the next Mike Hart.

    Kidding of course (kinda). I do think everyone is selling him short though. Hart proved size doesn't matter much. The last staff though Smith the best of the backs, the next staff may find the same. Rumors of his demise are extremely premature. I won't be shocked if he starts again.

    Re: conclusion 6. YES.


  2. It's amazing and ironic that Rodriguez never got a RB going in his three years. This offense should be very RB friendly. Especially last season when Denard became such a threat. I got the sense that Rod disliked every RB on the roster during his tenure. And that he was playing Smith to prove a point to the other guys about needing to practice hard or put effort into blocking. Who knows... Watching Denard run a QB keeper every 3rd down reminded me of watching a Pop Warner game where each team's best player is at QB and the coaches just tell them to take the ball and run.

    It's a shame that Rodriguez was not more well-rounded and suffered from all of these shortcomings (leadership, maturity, recruiting, staff mgmt, etc.). If he could have found a way to bring in a good RB recruit this season, the offense could have been absolutely electric Denard's last two years. Oh well.

  3. Regarding conclusion 6(b): Although I've wiped most of the '09 season from my memory, I'm fairly certain we didn't have Anthony Thomas on that squad.

  4. @ Lankownia 1:16 p.m.

    Keep in mind that my problem with Smith hasn't been that he's the worst RB ever. I don't think that's the case. My issue is that he hasn't been the best back on the roster, but he still gets most of the carries. That's what bothers me.

  5. @ Painter Smurf 3:33 p.m.

    I think that's one of my issues, too. At times it seemed like other guys were missing out on carries due to some sort of punishment. It seemed like a few guys might be healthy, but they would either split carries or get fewer carries than Smith.

    Good coaches know how to find a niche for kids who might not bring the whole package. Trindon Holliday wasn't an every-down back at LSU, but they still found ways to get him the ball. Even Denard Robinson as a true freshman wasn't a full-time quarterback, but the coaches found a package where they thought he could be successful.

    I think Demetrius Hart and Denard Robinson could have been awesome in the same backfield, but I guess we'll never know.

  6. "it seemed like other guys were missing out on carries due to some sort of punishment... they would either split carries or get fewer carries than Smith."

    They split carries, and got fewer carries because they're not any better. Your assumption that thats not the case is now driving you to make conjecture about "some sort of punishment" being doled out. And smurf seems to think Rodriguez was just 'proving a point' - as it turned out, on his way out the door. Ridiculous.

    "he hasn't been the best back on the roster, but he still gets most of the carries"

    Except that he probably is.

    Let me ask a question: If Smith is named the starter by Hoke's staff will you change your mind and admit you were wrong? Or will a 2nd coaching staff be wrong, in your eyes?


  7. @ Lankownia 12:15 p.m.

    You and I have been 'round and 'round on whether Smith is the best back, so I don't want to rehash that whole argument. My opinion is that he's not. Your opinion is that he probably is. That's really all that needs to be said.

    As I said above, Rodriguez found a package of plays for Denard Robinson to use during his freshman season. Denard was a TERRIBLE quarterback his freshman year, but those QB isos and such worked for him. Well, why can't that work for a running back? Why couldn't Michael Cox do that? You don't need to be good at EVERYTHING to get on the field. If Cox can't figure out all 100 plays, then find 10 that he knows and put him in.

    But there's no reason for a kid who averages 9 yards a carry (against questionable competition, obviously) to have only six carries at the end of the year. I'm not the only one who thinks it seemed like a punishment. I bet if you asked Cox that question - and if he was being honest - he would probably feel the same way. He certainly wasn't too upset when Rodriguez left.

    Regarding your question, I've thought about that and I don't know. I'm not someone who's always clamoring for the backup. That's a relatively new thing for me, and honestly, it coincided with Rich Rodriguez's entire tenure. When McGuffie started, I wanted Minor. When Smith started, I wanted Shaw or Cox or Toussaint. But back when Carr was here, I was happy watching Hart and Perry and Thomas run the ball. They were the best players, and they deserved to start.

    So with all that being said, I can't give you an honest answer right now, because I don't know. If Smith comes out, gets 5 yards a pop, catches the ball, doesn't fumble, breaks some tackles, makes some big plays, etc. then I'll be fine with it. I mean, I'm rooting for U of M, not an individual player. Hell, I'd love to see Vincent Smith win the Heisman Trophy or be All-Big Ten.

    But if Smith's longest runs continue to be 11 or 13 yards (like they were in most games); if he still can't break tackles; if Michael Shaw is breaking big plays and averaging 5+ YPC; if Michael Cox still rips off long run after long run; then I'm going to still be clamoring for Smith to be benched.

  8. Thunder,

    As you know, I respect your opinion. It's when it's asserted as fact that I usually start arguing. When you start with an assumption/hypothesis and then start coming up with dubious rationale that justifies it, I think there's reason to wonder if the assumption shouldn't be reconsidered...I guess that's a long way of saying I think you're being stubborn on this subject. That opinion will be heightened if we have a repeat of last years situation and Smith remains Hoke/Borges' starter and primary ball-carrier.

    Where we agree is that Michigan currently has no great backs - and that Smith has been pretty mediocre thusfar and is not a big play threat. The ironic thing is that I found your quality analysis in this post to be encouraging regarding Smith because of the comparison to Hart; whereas you conclude "Vincent Smith falls at the bottom of the heap". I don't think Smith will ever be a home-run threat - but neither was Hart and I think we can all agree he did pretty well. Smith obviously hasn't shown the same ability yet, but he has shown the potential to break and dodge tackles, particularly before he got hurt.

    Your point about a specific/limited package for Cox is more interesting. I too am intrigued by Cox and have been since his debut against EMU in '09. Obviously, I don't know why a guy who looked so good in limited play and was described by other players as the most talented back didn't get more runs. But there are plenty of rational explanations (e.g., fumbling, blocking, not knowing the plays).

    Plus, I think your 'package' concept also might go against what RR tried to do in terms of adjusting play calls based on what the D did. It seemed like there weren't a lot of plays that were pre-determined as RB runs (though some of the I-form stuff we saw against Iowa seemed like it.)

    Regarding Carr - remember that Underwood started over Hart and that an NFL running back like Fargas got little opportunity. Carr didn't always go with the most talented big play threat either. He had his reasons and I suspect RR did too. Furthermore, despite running so often, RR's style actually de-emphasized running ability from the RB - so blocking, catching, and knowing the plays became more important. These are things that Smith is considered by many to do better than the others, right or wrong.

    I guess I don't understand the general uproar about Smith. Its frustrating that the RBs weren't more productive as runners. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the guy who played the most didn't represent the best overall package of skills to the position.


  9. @ Lankownia 2:04 p.m.

    I mean, you can disagree all you want. I don't think people come here for qualifiers and softly worded opinions, so I try to avoid those when I can. If I see something one way, I say it. It might come across as fact, but unless it's hard numbers, then not much in sports is factual.

    Here's why the similarity between Hart's/Smith's numbers doesn't get me excited:

    1. Smith is less likely to break a big run. He averages 4.4 yards a carry because there's really nothing more than that.

    2. Hart was "it." If it was a pass, Henne was throwing it. If it was a run, Hart was getting the ball. The defense knew exactly where the ball was going when the play started with Hart in the backfield. But Smith was paired with perhaps the most dynamic runner in the entire country, who also had the ability to make big plays through the air...and Smith still managed to be mediocre.

    The Fargas situation is a little overplayed. He had four games out of 12 total where he averaged over 4.0 yards per carry. His best game was against Northwestern, when it took him 31 carries to get 126 yards (3.9 YPC). His second-best game was against BGSU when he got 70 yards on 8 carries. Other than that, he was very, very meh. I know he's had a decent pro career, but he wasn't getting it done on the field.

    Underwood was a senior starting over a freshman Hart. I can understand that. I also know that once Hart proved that he was better than Underwood, #5 lost his job to #20 permanently. Underwood came back from his injury after a few weeks, but he was still a backup. So the situation there isn't really relevant to the Smith/Shaw/Cox situation.

  10. Fair enough. This blog wouldn't be as good if you qualified every opinion.

    To your points:

    1. According to your own research above, this is false. "Hart's 64-yarder and 20-yarder in that year (2005) are actually pretty close to Smith's longest two runs from 2010 - a 56-yard touchdown and a 19-yard run." In their sophomore years, where Hart had 150 carries and Smith 136 -- they did about the same. You view Hart's year as an outlier but Smith's as indicative of appropriate expectations. If TOB existed in 2006 it might have been calling for Hart to be a role player.

    Looking at every other season, Hart had a big run every 71 (2004), 45 (2006), and 53 carries (2007)while Smith was at 48 carries (2009). Different sample sizes obviously, but your own data says that Smith had a far better big play rate his freshman year and did 'about the same' with fewer carries in his sophomore year.

    Obviously the data can be manipulated either way. If you ignore the 19 yard run for Smith the combined freshman/sophomore career numbers favor Hart 72 carries/big play to Smith's 92 carries. However, if you include the 19 yarder for Smith he goes to 61. I imagine Hart had some 19 yarders too though...

    Further, if you include Hart's upperclassman years (which isn't really fair to do, but...), the career comparison says a big play every 56 carries for Hart and 92 carries for Smith.

    What I see when I look at these numbers is that both guys are not big play type runners. Over a large enough sample they both will fall short of a threshold of making a big play once very 50 carries. Most of the 'big play' threat RBs tend to fall closer to one every 40 carries (according to your numbers). Hart shows that you can be successful without frequently making big plays. He was simply a different style of back and one that Smith can hope to emulate in terms of production if not style.

    2. Certainly Denard's running posed a different kind of threat than Henne, but the impact to the running backs is entirely up for debate. The safeties and corners had to respect Henne and his receivers going deep, while against Denard they could cheat into the box without much worry. Yes, they were sometimes burned long, but more so than with Henne, the D knew a run (or short pass) was coming. You're comparing apples and oranges. Furthermore: Jake Long.

    Regarding Fargas and Underwood - I agree with you. I don't think Carr necessarily made a wrong decsion. I'm not saying Carr was wrong at all. I'm saying he might have been justified. The YPC output we see is just a glimpse into what the coaches see on a day-to-day basis. An important glimpse, but still a limited sample of what was going on. The point stands that a guy with immense talent and running ability didn't play over people that, in retrospect, probably had more big play potential (or in Hart's case generally more effective).


  11. What this debate illustrates to me is a need for more advanced stats for running backs to be publicly available. YPC just doesn't cut it. Your attempt at big play rate is good, but this kind of stuff should be readily available somewhere.

    Football Outsiders developed a situational "success rate" stat for the NFL where a 2 yard carry is a 'success' on 3rd and 1 but not on 1st and 10.

    I'd like to see a YPC stat that takes situation into an account. Certainly a 80 yard run TD run shouldn't be twice as good as a 40 yarder, and a 12 yard run on 3rd and 20 isn't better than a 1 yard run on 4th and goal from the 1.


  12. @ Lankownia 4:29 p.m.

    1. I was referring to "big plays" not of the "explosive play" variety (i.e. 20+ yards), but longer runs in general. If you look back at the long runs for the two, they go like this:

    Smith: 6, 10, 2, 37*, 4, 7, 6, 10, 13, 6, 11, 11, 56, 13, 11, 9, 13, 19, 7, 11, 6

    Hart: 13, 9, 13, 16, 17, 16, 32, 33, 26, 34, 11, 12, 12, 2, 64, 20, 17, 6, 4, 18

    Hart obviously got more carries, but at least his longest run every week wasn't 6 or 11 yards. Meanwhile, Smith had the advantage of playing against a couple tomato cans in DSU and UMass, whereas Hart didn't play against a single FCS team until his senior year (in The Horror). It's just painful watching Smith scoot through a hole opened up by the offensive line, gain a few yards, and then get taken to the ground by the first guy who touches him.

    And I think if you go back and look at the film from this year, you'll find that Smith broke the tackles of some linebackers and defensive backs when he caught passes out of the backfield...but when it came to running the ball through a gauntlet of defensive linemen and linebackers, he was extremely ineffective.

    As for point #2, I don't think it's apples and oranges. Obviously, they're different offenses. But when Henne was around, Michigan typically had a good receiver (or two) and Hart. The offense was not extremely explosive.

    Michigan 2010 averaged 239 rushing and 250 passing.

    Michigan 2007 averaged 165 rushing and 220 passing.

    Michigan 2006 averaged 175 rushing and 195 passing.

    So I think it's disingenuous to characterize the 2010 offense as less explosive on the outside. Junior Hemingway, Darryl Stonum, and Roy Roundtree were all big play threats, whereas the 2006 and 2007 versions pretty much just had Manningham and Arrington.

    If nothing else, the zone read option keeper should have been a boon for Smith. The threat of Denard keeping the ball should have pulled the defense off of Smith and given him some monster running lanes. But instead he was just a guy.

  13. @ Lankownia 4:37 p.m.

    That's interesting. I hadn't seen a "success rate" from Football Outsiders. I wish I had a Landro and could go back and look at every one of Smith's carries, in order to see what exactly happened, how many tackles he broke, etc. I'm sure I could do it if I watched all the game film from those weeks, but that would take time I don't have.

  14. Yardage totals for the 2010 vs 2006 team are disingenuous because they don't take into account opportunity (created by awful/great) defenses. I think the '06 and offense was better than '10, and so do the Buckeyes.

    I think Manningham and Arrington were way better than Stonum, Hemingway and Roundtree combined. Most of Roundtree's big plays came as a safety crashed down into the box to hit Denard. Yeah, Henne used play action too, but it wasn't nearly as effective at obliterating any challenge as Denard/RR were.

    I agree that Smith was just a guy, and I agree that Hart/Thomas and most typical leading rushers for Michigan would have done better. But as far as big plays go, the ability of safeties to pull up into the box could have a drag on big/explosive plays.

    I see some parallels in your view of 2010 offense vs 2006 to the Smith-Shaw debate. There are some aggregate high level numbers that indicate that your side (2010/Shaw) is superior. And in many ways I agree that they are more explosive and dangerous. But my contention is that these numbers are limited and misleading and don't reflect overall effectiveness. I think 2006/Smith is actually more effective despite being less impressive to watch.

    I don't think either one of us will convince the other but we'll probably try again anyway.



    The FO article is located here


    Stats can never fully take context into account, but that's major progress and is just a matter of crunching numbers, not interpreting difficulty or anything.

  15. I don't see why you would expect our guys to be any better next year. Smith is a MAC level athlete. The fact that he averaged less than 4 ypc with the entire defense focused on Denard speaks volumes about how much he sucks. An above average running back would be over 6 yards per carry next to Denard in a spread offense. AT least.

  16. @ Anonymous 10:57 p.m.

    I expect Michigan's running backs to be better next year because a) Smith probably won't be the starter, b) I'm hoping Shaw and Toussaint can stay healthy, c) there will be more competition at RB, and d) I trust Hoke/Borges to get more out of their running backs than Rodriguez did.

  17. @ Lankownia 5:31 p.m.

    I disagree that Arrington/Manningham were way better than Stonum/Hemingway/Roundtree combined. I think Manningham was the most talented of the bunch, but Roundtree/Stonum both averaged 13 yards a catch, just like Arrington. And Hemingway averaged 20 yards a catch, which is better than Manningham's 16.

    I know averages aren't everything, the offenses are different, etc. But these receivers were pretty explosive. And even if Arrington and Manningham were "better" (aka better pro prospects), their production on the field doesn't necessarily support that.

    The 2010 offense was an explosive group...except for Smith.

    Thanks for the link. I don't have time to check it out now, but I will.

  18. V.Smith had offers from ISU, Minn, Tenn, Wisconsin (according to rivals & scout). He's no MAC-level athlete.

    Thunder, I think ypc is an almost worthless metric to gauge WR ability. Looking at the NFL: there isn't much correlation between all-pro's and ypc. I'd rather go by yardage totals than ypc, personally. That stat would argue for Roundtree. To me, its a matter of pure opinion. Its like defense - the data we have doesn't tell you a great deal about how good a player is.


  19. If I was to guess at who will start at RB in the opener, I'd make the odds very even.

    Smith 26%
    Shaw 24%
    Toussaint 20%
    Hopkins 15%
    Cox 10%
    Thomas Rawls 4%
    Justice Hayes 1%
    Teric Jones 0%

    I think that a lot of guys will get a shot during games.


  20. @ Lankownia 10:54 a.m.

    In an objective sense, I agree that Manningham and Arrington are better. If I were drafting an NFL team, I would draft both of them ahead of Stonum, Roundtree, and Hemingway.

    However, I think yardage totals are pretty useless, actually. They take a lot less into account than average per catch. If you throw to a receiver all the time but he doesn't make anyone miss, then he might get a lot of yards but isn't a great receiver. You can catch 100 balls, gain 1,000 yards, and average only 10.0 yards a catch. That's not really the sign of a good receiver.

    Like you said, stats can't account for everything. But yardage totals don't mean a whole lot. The same goes for running backs. A guy might get 400 carries for 1,600 yards, but that's much less impressive than a guy who gets 1,300 yards on 225 carries.

  21. Good points, but my counter would be that if you're thrown to a lot, you're doing two things reflect WR skill/ability/quality more than anything else: getting open and catching the ball. Yeah, yards after catch matters too, but the other two characteristics are fundamentally more important. Sure, there are screen passes and whatnot, but GETTING OPEN and CATCHING THE BALL are generally the most important thing and that shouldn't be ignored.

    For example, I'll take Wes Welker over Joey Galloway any day, but the YPC would say Galloway is far better.

    In other words, if you're getting 100 catches, you're probably doing something right. Though, of course, the system must be taken into account as well - but thats equally true for ypc and receptions and yards.

    Likewise for RB's, it's dubious to assert that ability/skill is independent of opportunity. Not that they're always right, but coaches want success far more than fans. They want to give the ball to the best player.


  22. Lank,

    Can you name any aspect of being a running back that Smith is particularly good at? I can name:

    -catching out of the backfield
    -blocking (for a little guy)
    That's about it.

    In my eyes, Smith is the anti-Hart. All of his weaknesses, none of his strengths. Both are undersized and not fast, but Hart moved piles like it was his job and never fumbled. Smith fumbles in critical situations and goes down on contact.

  23. @ Anonymous 12:07 p.m.

    It's true that getting open and catching the ball are of utmost importance, but take a guy like Jason Avant: he always got open and always caught the ball, but if I were a defensive coordinator, I wouldn't have game planned (much) for a guy like him. And while he was a 4th rounder and I have my doubts about whether Hemingway/Stonum/Roundtree will be drafted that high, deep threats like the 2010 trio are much more threatening to a defense.

    I agree that coaches want success far more than fans. I don't think Rodriguez would purposefully try to sabotage his own team. But I also think fans sometimes look at things more objectively, and have a chance to sit back and say, "What's going wrong?" And while coaches constantly analyze themselves, sometimes they can't see the forest for the trees.

    I worked with a coach once who really liked seniors. And despite the fact that we had a junior RB who averaged almost 6 yards a pop and who NEVER fumbled (literally, not once), the coach kept sending seniors out there, the best of which averaged 3.9 and fumbled a couple times. And after the game the coach would always say, "We have to get him on the field," but the next week, the workhorse would be the senior and the junior would get 4 carries. Just because the coach couldn't get past his senior fetish.

  24. @David

    I think that RR's assessment that Smith was "not a fumbler" was probably true and that the ones we saw were uncharacteristic. Also, in his freshman year he looked like a guy (who like Hart) broke tackles. I don't expect him to 'move the pile' or break out of tackles like Hart (but who does?), but I think he can dodge and bounce off tackles better than he showed in '10. He looked more promising in '09 and I think the injury may have hindered him.

    To me, Smith's a guy that is more likely to get 5 or 6 yards on play where Shaw would get you 2 or 3. He's also less likely to run for 40 than Shaw. They're just different guys, but both have value. I've used the analogy before of Emmit Smith vs. Barry Sanders -- they're like really really poor man's version of two guys who bring very different kind of production but are (about) equally effective in the end.

    To reiterate: I don't think Smith is great. But I think he might be the best we have. I like him more than I like Shaw, despite Shaw having more big-play ability. Shaw just seems to fall down too easily.

    In short, Smith is less flashy, but more reliable and tougher.

    @Anon 12:07

    Avant is a successful NFL receiver. I doubt Roundtree, Hemingway, or Stonum will be. I think Avants the best overall player of the group, even if he doesn't draw double-teams or pose a deep threat. I trust him to catch a ball on 3rd down conversion above any of them. Again, its about reliability.

    That's not everything, but its very important. Reliability has value, just like big-play ability does. Its not JUST about who is the big play guy.


    I agree that coaches make incorrect decisions at times, but GENERALLY - the majority of the time, they're right. They have way more data and insight than fans. But I certainly appreciate with the idea that outside opinions are worthwhile for a different perspective.


  25. @ Lankownia 2:01 p.m.

    re: Smith
    Here's my issue with your assessment of Vincent Smith's reliability - he IS a fumbler. He fumbled four or five times this year. On only 136 carries. If he were your average 275-300 carry everydown back, that's 8 fumbles. That analysis by Rodriguez that Smith is "not a fumbler" is hogwash.

    Additionally, you say that Smith can bounce off tackles, but when have you seen that to be the case? Against Delaware State? He certainly didn't bounce off many tackles when running the ball this year, and he averaged 3.5 yards a carry against non-DSU opponents in 2009, which doesn't suggest much ability to break tackles.

    re: Avant
    I think you're getting off topic. We weren't talking about reliability. Avant is certainly more reliable.

    The discussion about receivers was which ones pose more of a threat to defenses (and therefore should open up the running game more). Reliable Jason Avant doesn't do much to open up the running game, because he's going to get open and catch the ball, but he's not going to get downfield and burn you deep. Meanwhile, Hemingway repeatedly got deep (see Indiana for an example) or got yards after the catch (see Indiana and Illinois for examples).

    Deep threats open up the running game. Hook routes, square outs, etc. aren't something you freak out about as a DC.

    Is Avant better than any one of the 2010 trio? Probably. But does Avant scare me as a DC and open up running lanes? Not really.

    re: coaches
    I agree that coaches are generally correct. Which is why I'm not complaining about his choice for quarterback, the offensive line, wide receiver, defensive end, punter, etc.

    The things I've harped on (running back, Cameron Gordon at safety, Craig Roh's deployment as a LB, etc.) are obvious deficiencies in either Rodriguez's recruiting or his coaching. He had the right guys on the field in about 19 of the 24 starting positions, and I would say that counts as being "generally" correct. But there's room for argument about those other 4-6 spots.

  26. I don't have fumbling stats available so I can't argue your point about Smith's fumbling. He had that rep (as a guy who doesn't fumble) and I assumed it was for a reason (e.g. hundreds of practice/game reps). I'd be willing to bet that over his career his rate of fumbles per carry will look good.

    As for Smith bouncing off tackles, yes, I did see it, more in 2009 than 2010. I also saw Shaw falling over every-time someone grazed his shoelace. This is all subjective stuff and impressions from watching Michigan football.

    I never said Avant was a big play threat. We were talking about what players are better. The fact that you think discussing reliability in this context is "off topic" is exactly the point.

    If big play threat was the only thing that mattered then kick returner types would get the ball every play. But no coach does that because its also important to move the ball steadily and convert 3rd downs. This is also why RR's offense was overrated by yardage metrics. I don't want to sound like an old school hardhead, and I'd trade back Hoke for Rodriguez if I could, but theres something to be said for focusing on short-yardage conversions.

    I agree with you that the big play threat matters...a lot. I just get the impression you're disinclined to see much value in other attributes. But if you're argument is that those are less tangible and harder to prove - and therefore more subjective - I won't disagree.


    I definitely agree with you about Gordon and Roh. Though with Gordon there is some potential that he really was the best guy at the start of the season and that his practice play against Denard and Tate didn't expose his deficiencies on long passes. Starting a true freshman before they even know the play book is usually a dicey proposition.

    As for Smith, I'm bored of arguing about it. When you compare apples to apples (individual games where Shaw or Hopkins split carries with Smith) in a meaningful context its hard to see one guy as being worse than the other.

    Carries/Yards for the top 2 RBs

    UConn: 14/51, 15/48
    ND: 7/17,5/12
    MSU: 7/34, 4/29
    Iowa: 10/39, 8/38
    PSU: 9/24, 5/14
    ILL: 13/73, 9/44
    OSU: 8/17, 8/52
    MissSt: 7/13, 4/19

    Other than the OSU game (where Shaw broke a 39 yarder that bumped his stats from 7/13 to Smiths 8/17), I don't see a significant difference there.

    If you sum all that up it's 3.8 ypc vs 3.6 ypc. If you want to get excited about that - well, you can. But I see it as an insignificant difference.

    The bottom line is that OSU is the only game where you can say another back clearly outperformed Smith and that was due to one carry.

    Furthermore, the games where Smith got the vast majority of work and Shaw/Hopkins saw little to none were Smith's best: 18/99 vs Purdue and 9/80 vs Indiana and 11/50 vs Wisconsin. [as an aside, That kind of makes me wonder about the effectiveness of rotating these guys - maybe RR should have picked one and stuck with him.]

    Again, this is a subjective topic, the data isn't at all conclusive. I don't think it's nearly the slam-dunk case that the majority of the fans and pundits seem to think. We'll see in 2011. I think I'll be one of the few M fans who won't at all be surprised if Smith again leads the team in carries.


  27. @ Lankownia 3:58 p.m.

    That's fine if you want to bet on Smith's fumble rate. If I remember correctly, he fumbled at least 4 times this year. That's 4 fumbles in about 175 career carries. If he averages 20 carries a game, that means he's going to fumble every two or three games. Bad news.

    re: receivers
    Look, if you can't agree on what we're discussing, then we're obviously not going to get anywhere. The receiver discussion came up because we were talking about getting safeties and corners to back off in order to open up the running game. You said that Arrington/Manningham were better than Roundtree/Hemingway/Stonum.

    Avant is what I would call reliable. But I would be very surprised if you ever saw a safety or cornerback who was worried that Avant might go deep on them. Avant didn't make defensive backs retreat. And while I'm sure Denard was the focal point of opponents, I bet a speedster like Stonum, a productive guy like Roundtree, and a leaper like Hemingway scared defensive backs more than a 6'0" guy who's not much of an acrobat and runs a 4.73 forty.

    Take a look at my post @ 1:29 p.m. if you're wondering where Avant came up.

  28. Lank,

    You think Smith is better than he showed during the 2010 season? Yeah, and I think Shaw is capable of tearing off five or six 80-yard touchdowns if given the opportunity. "He didn't perform that well, but I think he's better than that" isn't an argument. If you give any of the other running backs the equivalent number of Smith's carries, I bet at least two of them would rush for more yards.

    I will be very, very shocked if Smith still leads the team in carries in 2011.