Less than Zero: a look at Negative Yardage Lost by the RB Position

A serious fantasy owner will agonize over various statistics. Even seemingly irrelevant data is fair game if it connects to the player at hand. Conversely some owners may turn a blind eye to certain statistics, particularly if they are negative.

For example, fumbles lost and interception categories might be dismissed from significance because they may be minimal or sporadic. They reason that a couple of fumbles per season, or even double digit interceptions thrown are minimized by the sheer volume of touches or passes attempted.

However, what if there were a negative statistic that was more common than fumbles lost? More frequent than even interceptions thrown? The category is Negative Yards Lost.

Thanks to our research friends at ProFootball Reference, I queried offensive plays that gained zero yards or less.

Last season there were 2,798 offensive plays that resulted in zero yards gained or less.

Those 2,798 plays represent nearly 9% of all offensive plays called in the NFL.

Put another way – a negative play occurred once about every 11 plays. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Of those 2,798 plays, 2,232 of them involved the RB position. This means that a whopping 16% of RB touches (rushing attempts and receptions) lost yards or gained zero – or roughly every 6 touches by a running back. This was a staggeringly shocking statistic.

Perhaps some coaches expect negative yardage? After all, not every designed play gets executed as planned. Yet, would you drive a car that wouldn’t go forward every sixth trip? Would you be annoyed if a light bulb wouldn’t glow every sixth time you used it? Would you want to change your toilet if it backed up every sixth flush?

Admittedly these idioms are an exaggeration just to make a point.

It may be speculative, yet I can’t imagine that coaching staffs would continue to use certain running backs if they were more susceptible to negative yards. Especially since the unofficial goal of NFL coaches is, “You play to win the game,” quoting legendary coach Herm Edwards.

Are some RB more susceptible to negative yards?

The chart below shows RB that recorded 100 touches or more in 2018. It then lists the total number of negative (and/or no gain) plays, along with the total negative yards lost.

The chart is sorted by worst offenders to the best.

RB Tm Neg Plays Yards Lost Touches Loss % per Touch
Elijah McGuire NYJ 33 -38 111 29.7%
LeGarrette Blount DET 47 -62 164 28.7%
Carlos Hyde JAX 45 -32 182 24.7%
Josh Adams PHI 31 -33 127 24.4%
Tevin Coleman ATL 47 -90 199 23.6%
LeSean McCoy BUF 45 -70 195 23.1%
Nick Chubb CLE 48 -50 212 22.6%
Adrian Peterson WSH 61 -83 271 22.5%
Alex Collins BAL 29 -47 129 22.5%
Peyton Barber TB 56 -73 254 22.0%
Isaiah Crowell NYJ 36 -50 164 22.0%
Chris Ivory BUF 28 -33 128 21.9%
Alfred Morris SF 26 -41 119 21.8%
Dion Lewis TEN 46 -73 214 21.5%
Dalvin Cook MIN 37 -49 173 21.4%
Ito Smith ATL 24 -45 117 20.5%
Saquon Barkley NYG 68 -117 352 19.3%
Joe Mixon CIN 53 -80 280 18.9%
Royce Freeman DEN 27 -23 144 18.8%
Lamar Miller HOU 43 -65 235 18.3%
Jamaal Williams GB 27 -24 148 18.2%
Alfred Blue HOU 31 -31 170 18.2%
Tarik Cohen CHI 31 -62 170 18.2%
Marshawn Lynch OAK 19 -23 105 18.1%
Leonard Fournette JAX 28 -45 155 18.1%
Nyheim Hines IND 26 -36 148 17.6%
Jordan Howard CHI 47 -51 270 17.4%
Doug Martin OAK 32 -26 190 16.8%
Phillip Lindsay DEN 38 -44 227 16.7%
Kareem Hunt KC 34 -44 207 16.4%
Sony Michel NE 35 -22 216 16.2%
Kenyan Drake MIA 28 -51 173 16.2%
Marlon Mack IND 34 -29 212 16.0%
Melvin Gordon LAC 36 -39 225 16.0%
Theo Riddick DET 16 -34 101 15.8%
Matt Breida SF 28 -47 180 15.6%
Latavius Murray MIN 24 -24 162 14.8%
David Johnson ARI 45 -49 308 14.6%
Chris Carson SEA 39 -29 267 14.6%
Todd Gurley LAR 46 -65 315 14.6%
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 54 -54 381 14.2%
Kerryon Johnson DET 21 -19 150 14.0%
Aaron Jones GB 22 -30 159 13.8%
Mark Ingram NO 22 -16 159 13.8%
Austin Ekeler LAC 20 -33 145 13.8%
Mike Davis SEA 20 -17 146 13.7%
Frank Gore MIA 23 -17 168 13.7%
Wendell Smallwood PHI 15 -30 115 13.0%
Derrick Henry TEN 30 -43 230 13.0%
James Conner PIT 35 -37 270 13.0%
Christian McCaffrey CAR 40 -50 326 12.3%
Alvin Kamara NO 29 -49 275 10.5%
James White NE 19 -15 181 10.5%
T.J. Yeldon JAX 14 -7 159 8.8%
Jalen Richard OAK 10 -9 123 8.1%
Gus Edwards BAL 10 -1 139 7.2%

Just to pick on a few who are relevant in the 2019 draft rankings:

  • Nick Chubb does not gain positive yards every 4.4 touches on average.
  • Peyton Barber every 4.5 touches.
  • Dalvin Cook every 4.7 touches.
  • Saquon Barkley every 5.2 touches.
  • Joe Mixon every 5.3 touches.
  • Tarik Cohen and Leonard Fournette every 5.5 touches.

On the other side of the spectrum, some of the better backs included Gus Edwards, who had the best average, only losing yardage a rare 13.9 touches.

  • Alvin Kamara is next every 9.5 touches.
  • James Connor and Derrick Henry every 7.7 touches.

Maybe this is interesting?

After all, it seems that every RB will not always gain positive yardage. Some may also argue, justifiably, that these negative gains reflect on the offensive line, the offensive coordinator or even the quarterback’s effectiveness.

While I agree it is a little unfair to pin this all on the running back position, every April we are reminded that most draft-worthy running backs earn a spot in the NFL because, as their scouting reports will boast, they have a propensity to gain positive yards and break tackles.

Well, what happens when they don’t break tackles and gain positive yards under the microscope of the NFL?

It’s very possible this data has absolutely no impact on how coaches will distribute touches to their running backs? But if you were the coach, would you ignore it, or would you give more touches to the backs that do it less frequently?

 

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Joe Mica

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Joe has been passionate about fantasy football since 2001. He has experience as an owner as well as a commissioner in H2H, auction, redraft and IDP leagues. He has written fantasy football columns since 2010. Submit any fantasy football questions you may have to me on twitter @averagejoem

3 thoughts on “Less than Zero: a look at Negative Yardage Lost by the RB Position”

  1. That’s very interesting Joe this could be one of those things that you use as a tiebreaker between guys that you have similarly ranked. I like it, thanks for the great research.

  2. Great work as always Joe. Couple of things that Where a bit surprising – Barkley’s negative yards and a guy like Marlon Mack having much lower numbers. The ‘knock’ on small quick guys has always been the negative yds to go with the big play. The data seems to disputes that, at least somewhat. Then again, Barkley didn’t have much help from anyone upfront or otherwise.

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