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How Much Does An Elite QB Help The Run Game?

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Can you imagine what this offense would be like with an awesome running game with a rejuvenated Chris Johnson? He'd have holes opening up left and right no matter who was playing guard if Peyton Manning were his quarterback. Teams would finally have to take eight men out of the box and respect the passing game as an equal threat.

Then again, maybe the connection between the two isn't as strong as we think it is.

Before we start this, I'd like to say that whatever I end up uncovering is bound to have plenty of counterpoints that can refute it. As it stands today, it is a little bit tougher to get a read on NFL players as individuals as opposed to, say, MLB players because the sample size is small and because running back in particular is a position that relies very heavily on its' offensive line to be successful. Consequently, my findings should not be taken as definitive proof as to whether running backs with better QB's will put up better numbers or whether they won't. With that out of the way, let's begin.

First, we should identify some of the NFL's top quarterbacks. For the sake of the argument, I'll list seven because it's not a multiple of five which means somebody's OCD is going to go crazy when they see it because we love the base-ten counting system for some reason. Now last time I made a list of top players, it seemed to go over pretty well, here's hoping MCM is on board with these guys too.

  • Drew Brees
  • Aaron Rodgers
  • Tom Brady
  • Matt Stafford
  • Eli Manning
  • Ben Roethlisberger
  • Tony Romo (DEAL WITH IT)
For what it's worth, Football Outsiders seems to agree for the most part. Now comes the hard part, we have to find teams that have a top QB and a top running back. To help me out, I obviously stuck with FO.

I was immediately smacked in the face with one name: Pierre Thomas. This guy was number one overall in football last year in terms of running back DVOA. Because we review it every time, higher DVOA = more efficient on a per play basis. With a whopping 32.6%, he bested runner-up Jonathan Stewart by a good 8.2%. What this says is that, in a part time role at least, Pierre Thomas was the most efficient back in football. Not the best, not most the effective, the most efficient on a play-by-play basis. Thomas was not robbed of All-Pro honors, no reason to take him number one overall in your fantasy leagues next year, he's just a good, efficient runner, and he's also a product of his environment.

It's no coincidence that Thomas had an easy time running the ball (as evidenced by his absurdly high 61% success rate). However, I think that we can all agree that Pierre Thomas is not one of the best running backs in football. He's a nice piece on a contending team, but he's no superstar. Even if he did outplay his under-whelming stats in 2011 (he did), it would be nearly impossible for Thomas to have not had a very efficient year. Not only did he benefit from having a team that featured the quarterback that threw the ball 657 times for well over 5,000 yards and also the best run blocking offensive line in the game. Get this: Thomas' 5.1 YPC matches up almost perfectly for the Saints' group of running backs. Darren Sproles had a ridiculous season with 6.9 YPC (Also; with less than 100 carries, he did not qualify for the DVOA title, but clocked in at a ridiculous 47.9%. Talk about efficiency.) and Mark Ingram hit the rookie wall, gaining only 3.9 YPC. Overall, the team averaged about 5 yards every time a running back had the ball. If I had to level with you right now, I'd say that was more due to the offensive line and how they just totally mauled their opponents in the middle than it did with Brees. This is just speculation, I'm sure, but something tells me that further inspection would verify that it is more the offensive line that impacts a running back and his performance.

Next QB up will be Aaron Rodgers. Much like Brees, Rodgers is an amazing quarterback with a decent "stable" of running backs. I'd give the slight edge to Brees' group of Sproles, Ingram, Ivory (again, rated very highly in DVOA) and Thomas, but Grant and Starks aren't awful by any stretch of the imagination. However, Green Bay, as a rushing team, was decidedly worse than New Orleans in 2011. The line wasn't horrible either, the Pack ranked 16th in the NFL in run blocking, yet their run game wasn't nearly as efficient as New Orleans'. Teams were not stacking the box, yet they couldn't move the ball. All running backs created equal*, the drop off in line play is clearly at fault here, the reputation and ability of a quarterback seems to have very little impact on the RB's as a whole.

One situation where I also saw a trend was in mobile QB's. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (Cam Newton), LeSean McCoy (Mike Vick), and Willis McGahee (Tim Tebow) all performed very efficiently in 2011 despite not having a great passing QB (Newton being the exception, and some are still hesitant to call him great). Another common theme was the mediocrity in the lines of McCoy and McGahee. Denver was actually pretty good and came in at eleventh in the league, but Philly was flat out awful, they were twenty-sixth. What this says to me is that Carolina was set up to succeed as a running team with a mobile QB, two talented running backs, and a good offensive line that knows how to run block. Denver was built around the run, but I doubt even they expected McGahee to come in the top half of all running backs this year in terms of efficiency. Finally, Philadelphia has one of the best running quarterbacks of all time, it's only natural that the defenses respect that. When you combine that with a good player like McCoy, big things happen even without the benefit of a good offensive line.

So in the end, these are just a few numbers to maybe consider before we go overboard and proclaim that CJ will break loose for 1800 and 10 again this year should Peyton Manning decide to don the two-toned blue.

* Not always the case obviously, but here we have a pretty comparable situation of guys talent-wise.