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The Answer Man, Series 9, Volume 2 (Part II)

Posted Mar 7, 2013

The Buc fans' inside man continues his current three-parter with a trio of questions involving rookie running backs, contract incentives and something known as a palpably unfair act


If you missed it, I started this three-part column last week, making up some excuse to split it up over a fortnight as a celebration of my new logo.  I also checked the superhero union bill of rights and it says I do not have to provide a lengthy intro to the second or third parts of any three-part column, so let's get right to your questions.

 

(Here's Part I if you didn't catch it.  Discussions of kicker football manipulation, 300-pound footballs and the like.  Send me a new question about, oh I don't know, 300-pound kickers, here.)

 

**

 

1. Geoff Lombardi of St. Petersburg, Florida asks:

Answerman, I've seen you do comparisons of players in the past after a Buccaneer has had a good season or a breakout year or whatever…….kind of like a prediction of what we can expect next.  Like quarterbacks under the age of 25 who had 3,000 yards or something like that.......I can't remember exactly what it was.  Anyway, could you do something like that with Doug Martin.  You can decide how you want to do it, but tell us what runningbacks like Doug have done after their big rookie season.  Thanks! - Geoff

 

Answer Man: I can't say I recall exactly what you're talking about in terms of former studies – maybe this one from 2011 comparing second-year quarterbacks who had seasons with great TD/INT ratios – but I think I get the gist of what you're asking.  And, yes, I do like to compile lists like that, so I'm happy to take this one on.

 

I guess there's a couple ways we could set the parameters.  We could look at the best rookie running back seasons in terms of yards from scrimmage, or we could restrict it just to rushing yards.  As you probably heard, Martin's 1,926 combined rushing and receiving yards last year represented the third-highest total by a rookie in NFL history.   That was his most impressive stat, but he also put together the ninth-highest rushing yardage total ever by a rookie.  The fact that fellow 2012 rookie Alfred Morris placed third on that list with 1,613 rushing yards helps explain why more emphasis was put on that first stat for Martin, but his 1,454 yards on the ground were still incredibly impressive.

 

For the purposes of this analysis, I think I'm going to surprise you and go with rushing yards instead of total yards from scrimmage, even if that second number more accurately describes the impact that Martin had in his rookie campaign.  It is also probably the reason that Martin was selected to the Pro Bowl over Morris, though it's a good bet both backs will be making multiple trips to Hawaii in the coming  years (assuming the Pro Bowl continues to exist and stays in Honolulu, neither of which are absolutely sure things).  Anyway, I digress.

 

If you look at the 250 best single-season rushing totals in NFL history, it takes you down to the 1,235-yard level (Ahmad Bradshaw in 2010).  Just to even it out, let's start our criteria at 1,200 rushing yards.  Of the 293 seasons on that list, 24 were turned in by rookies.  Here's the whole group, in descending order of their final totals:

 

MOST RUSHING YARDS BY A ROOKIE IN NFL HISTORY

 

Rank

Player

Team

Season

Yards

1

Eric Dickerson

Rams

1983

1,808

2

George Rogers

Saints

1981

1,674

3

Alfred Morris

Redskins

2012

1,613

4

Ottis Anderson

Cardinals

1979

1,605

5

Edgerrin James

Colts

1999

1,553

6

Clinton Portis

Broncos

2002

1,508

7

Curtis Martin

Patriots

1995

1,487

8

Mike Anderson

Broncos

2000

1,487

9

Barry Sanders

Lions

1989

1,470

10

Doug Martin

Buccaneers

2012

1,454

11

Earl Campbell

Oilers

1978

1,450

12

Curt Warner

Seahawks

1983

1,449

13

Jerome Bettis

Rams

1993

1,429

14

Eddie George

Oilers

1996

1,368

15

Jamal Lewis

Ravens

2000

1,364

16

Rueben Mayes

Saints

1986

1,353

17

Adrian Peterson

Vikings

2007

1,341

18

Billy Sims

Lions

1980

1,303

19

Marshall Faulk

Colts

1994

1,282

20

Steve Slaton

Texans

2008

1,282

21

Matt Forte

Bears

2008

1,238

22

LaDainian Tomlinson

Chargers

2001

1,236

23

Chris Johnson

Titans

2008

1,228

24

Fred Taylor

Jaguars

1998

1,223

 

 

Geoff, I think you wanted to know what Martin's amazing rookie season portends for his NFL future, using comparative rookie seasons to help us predict.  I'll break down the numbers in a second, but first just take a moment to drink in that list.  It's a heady one.  Sure, there are a couple of one-hit wonders there (most notably Steve Slaton and Reuben Mayes) but it's mostly a collection of absolute superstars at the running back position.  Dickerson, James, Martin, Sanders, Campbell, Bettis, George, Peterson, Faulk, Tomlinson…wow!  I just skimmed that group off the top without including Portis, Rogers, Warner, Armstrong, Lewis, Sims, Forte, Johnson or Taylor, all of whom were awfully good, too.  There seems to be a VERY high ceiling, and a very low bust percentage, for running backs who have 1,200-yard rookie seasons.

 

Now for the specific numbers.  Let's look at each of these 24 players in terms of what they did in their second NFL seasons, what their final career rushing totals were, how many seasons they played and what they averaged per season during their time in the league.  I obviously removed Martin and Morris from the list, and you can just change all the above verb tenses to the present for those still playing, like Johnson and Forte.  I've marked all those backs still in the league (at least in 2012) with an asterisk by their names.

 

Player

2nd Yr

Career

Years

Avg.

Eric Dickerson

2,105

13,259

11

1,205

George Rogers

535

7,176

7

1,025

Edgerrin James

1,709

12,246

11

1,113

Ottis Anderson

1,352

10,273

14

734

Clinton Portis

1,591

9,923

9

1,103

Curtis Martin

1,152

14,101

11

1,282

Mike Anderson

678

4,067

7

581

Barry Sanders

1,304

15,269

10

1,527

Earl Campbell

1,697

9,407

8

1,176

Curt Warner

40

6,844

8

856

Jerome Bettis

1,025

13,662

13

1,051

Eddie George

1,399

10,441

9

1,160

Jamal Lewis

1,327

10,607

9

1,179

Rueben Mayes

917

3,484

6

581

Adrian Peterson *

1,760

8,849

6

1,475

Billy Sims

1,437

5,106

5

1,021

Marshall Faulk

1,078

12,279

12

1,023

Steve Slaton

437

1,896

4

474

Matt Forte *

929

5,327

5

1,065

LaDainian Tomlinson

1,683

13,684

11

1,244

Chris Johnson *

2,006

6,888

5

1,378

Fred Taylor

732

11,695

13

900

Averages

1,222

9,386

9

1,064

 

Again, those are phenomenally encouraging numbers.  You can probably guess that most of the low numbers you see in that first column of stats are due to injury.  For instance, Curt Warner was only able to play in one game in his second season due to a torn ACL but he came back to crack 1,000 in three of the next four seasons.  George Rogers also rebounded from his abbreviated sophomore campaign to have three more 1,000-yard efforts.  Slaton had some injury problems in his second year, too, but his decline was more lasting.  Fred Taylor had assorted injury issues throughout his career but still put up very nice numbers.

 

Even with those issues, the 22 players on the list combined to average 1,222 rushing yards in their second seasons, which is simply outstanding as a group.  Nine of those players even put up better numbers in their second year, and that might end up being the most telling development for Martin.  Those nine players make up most of the truly elite superstars on the list: Dickerson, James, Portis, Campbell, George, Peterson, Sims, Tomlinson, Johnson.  I know not every name on that list qualifies in that elite category, but it's close.

 

The overall averages at the bottom of that second table are actually quite a bit more impressive than they may seem at first glance.  Take that 1,064 yards per season.  That might seem a bit low, but keep in mind that almost all running backs finish their careers with a few seasons of gradual decline.  Do you know how many individual players have averaged 1,064 rushing yards per season or more in their careers (minimum 4,000 career yards)?  Coincidentally, exactly 22 (though not the same 22 as above, obviously).  And that 9,386 career yards per player on the list, on average?  Only 30 players in NFL history have hit that mark in their careers.  Even nine seasons, as the average length of these players careers, is very much on the high end of the spectrum for the running back position, where players last, on average, 2.5 seasons in the NFL.

 

There is a whole lot of overlap between that list above and the all-time leading rushers in NFL history.  Some of the greatest running backs in NFL history, such as Emmitt Smith, did not quite have the breakout rookie season needed to be on the above list.  Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett are two other good examples.  However, exactly half of the 22 running backs with the great rookie seasons listed above are currently among the top 25 career rushers in league annals.  That includes everyone on the list from the third spot through the seventh – Sanders, Martin, Tomlinson, Bettis and Dickerson.

 

Anything could happen for Doug Martin in 2013 and beyond.  He might continue to pile up the numbers until he, too, is among the all-time greats.  He could (and believe me, I'm knocking on wood and crossing my fingers as a I type this, which is actually making typing quite hard) encounter some injury difficulties and see lesser numbers.  Nobody expects or wants that, of course, but it's a possibility for any player.  We can't just look at the above table and assume the Bucs are getting another big season out of Martin in 2013 and, judging from the career averages, the greatest runner in franchise history.

 

No, we can't assume that.  But we can certainly – and realistically – harbor some very high hopes for the Dougernaut.

 

(By the way, Geoff, I'm sure Doug would appreciate that you refrained from calling him the Muscle Hamster in your question.  Now if we could get from "Answerman" to "Answer Man" and "runningback" to "running back," that would be even better.)

 

**

 

2. Damon of Costa, Mesa, California asks:

Hey, Answer Man, glad you're back to give us info on all our queries. There's been a lot of discussion on cap space lately, and the Bucs being $30 mil or so under the cap space. Michael Vick was just signed to a contract that was very incentive laden. How do contract incentives affect the cap number?

 

Answer Man: Well, thanks a bunch, Damon.  And, I have to say, after some of the questions I've received lately (cough, Buccanbobby, cough), it's nice to have someone get directly and cogently to the point.

 

The most important thing you have to know when understanding this issue, Damon, is the difference between LTBE and NLTBE incentives.  (Full disclosure: I answered a similar question two years ago, but at the time I referred to the issue as LTBEA – likely to be explained again.  It's an interesting and relevant topic right now, so I'm going to have another go at it rather than just providing a link.)

 

LTBE stands for "likely to be earned," and NLTBE adds a "not" on the front of it.  When an incentive is added into a player's contract, it is judged to be in one of those two categories, and I trust it's easy to understand what those two terms mean.  An incentive that is judged "likely to be earned" immediately counts against the cap, just as if it was regular salary or signing bonus.  An incentive "not likely to be earned" does not count against the cap.

 

So, basically what I'm saying is that the majority of incentives – because players generally try to get incentive clauses they believe they can reach – count against the cap.  Whether or not an incentive falls into the "likely" category is based on what the player did in the previous season.  If a running back rushes for 750 yards in one season, he is considered likely to do so again the next season, so an incentive based on 750 yards in the next season would count against the cap.  An incentive based on 1,500 yards the next season would be considered not likely and would not count against the cap.  Also, if an incentive is considered completely under the player's control, such as one for reporting to a certain number of offseason practices, then it is an LTBE.

 

As for NLTBEs, I used this example two years ago but it's too on-point not to bring it up again.  Remember the deal Ricky Williams signed with the Saints when Mike Ditka drafted him in 1999 (after trading something like 5,000 picks to move up to get him)?  Williams had an inexperienced agent, and the agent agreed to structure much of Williams' future compensation on performance incentives.  Williams could have earned up to $68 million in incentives, in fact.  The problem was, the incentives were ridiculously NLTBE.  For example, one of them kicked in if he managed to rush for over 1,600 yards in three of his first four seasons.  You know all those awesome running backs I was talking about in the question before this one?  Yeah, none of those guys – nor anyone else – has ever done that.  He also would get a $3 million bonus if he broke Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards.  Because,  yeah, if you're going to have an incentive in your contract you definitely want it to be for breaking one of the most prominent and difficult records in all of sports.

 

Anyway, safe to say Williams didn't land much of that $68 million in the long run, and the Saints didn't pay for it with cap space.  Ah, but what if Williams HAD backed up his confident move and reached some of those insane NLTBEs?  Well, then it would have come back to hurt the Saints under the following year's salary cap.

 

See, the majority of LTBEs are eventually reached and the majority of NLTBEs are not reached, so generally there aren't any lasting salary cap consequences in the subsequent years.  However, there are exceptions.  If an LTBE is not reached, it can result in a cap credit the next year, and if an NLTBE is reached, it can result in a cap hit.  What happens is that a team's unreached LTBEs and reached NLTBEs are added up, assessing cap "credits" and "debits."  If the amount of non-reached LTBE credits is higher than the NLTBEs that were achieved, the difference will be added to the cap the next year.  And vice versa.

 

Michael Vick's deal seems to be a mix of LTBEs and NLTBEs, but more of the latter, which is unsurprising.  The Eagles, with new Head Coach Chip Kelly figuring out what he has and where he wants to go, weren't going to tie up a lot of irrevocable cap space on Vick, who got hurt last year and then watched rookie Nick Foles finish out the season even when he was ready to return.  If what I read is accurate, Vick would get half a mill for playing in 50% of the team's offensive snaps, which is probably an LTBE.  He would get another $1 million if that goes up to 90%, which I assume is an NLTBE.  And, truly in the NLTBE category, he gets another million if he leads the Eagles to the Super Bowl title.  That would be the team's first Super Bowl title, so while it's certainly possible, it's hard to consider it likely.

 

**

 

3. Andrew Deeson of Tampa, Florida asks (and asks and asks):

Hello again, Answer Man! Thank you for answering my question regarding the statistics of overtime coin toss winners going on to win games on the first possession. (Series 2, Vol. 18 - Posted June 20, 2005. Better late than never, right?) Well, it took 5 years for the league to have a reason to make a change and add, what I call, the "Brett Favre Overtime Rule". If you would like to give the readers a rundown of the final minutes of his career, I think it will tie together that 8 year-old question and my nickname for the rule rather nicely. (Poor Brett. If only the rule had existed before that fateful day, he might have gone to the Super Bowl. Signed, Bert Emanuel) I want to comment on your post from Series 9, Volume 1 about the average age of top 10 quarterbacks. Sure, Griffin, Wilson and Luck all had fantastic rookie seasons. So did Newton, but look at his second season. I think your finding of the average age to be 29 speaks volumes as to how on-track Josh Freeman is right now. At the age of 25, he is breaking team records. This shows that he still has time to develop into the quarterback we have all only seen glimpses of thus far. Now to my question. On NFL Network this weekend, during the numerous replays of the Super Bowl with added player and sideline mic audio, Joe Flacco very clearly tells teammates on the sideline to tackle Ted Ginn Jr. if he breaks free down their sideline on the final punt return following the safety. My question is, if this occurred, what would be the result of the play? The host of the show had mentioned that it was a good thing it didn't come to that as Ginn could have been awarded a touchdown, Is this true? Thanks in advance so I don't wait another 8 years!

 

Answer Man: I jokingly complained about long-winded questions above, but seriously, if I was paid by the word count (and I could be, for all you know, dear readers), then guys like Andrew would be like my own personal mint.  His question alone is 323 words!

 

Ah, but it's not just a question, is it?  It's a historical call-back, a compliment, a great Bert Emanuel joke, a nice bit of optimistic analysis regarding our Josh Freeman and, yes, at the end, a question.  There's a ton to work with here, so I ain't complainin'.

 

First off, how cool is it that Andrew remembers our Q&A session from eight years ago.  That was back in the long-ago days of true sudden death overtime, and he asked me to break down the percentages on winning and losing the coin flip and how it related to the game's final outcome.  I could rehash it here, but as we all know the overtime rules are different know.  For the record, Andrew stated at the time that he was in favor of a new approach to the extra period.  Truly a man ahead of his time.

 

I'm guessing most of my readership knows the Brett Favre situation to which you are referring, though it wasn't actually the final minutes of his career.  You are surely referring to the 2009 NFC Championship Game between the Vikings and Saints, but Favre came back to play 13 more games for Minnesota in 2010.  His career actually ended on a snowy December day in 2010 against the Chicago Bears when he suffered a concussion on a hard tackle by Corey Wootton.

 

Back to that last playoff game for Favre.  It's the Vikings at the Saints and the game is tied, 28-28, in the closing seconds of regulation.  Favre has Minnesota right about at midfield with the clock stopped at 19 seconds left.  The Vikings have one more timeout in their pocket.  On third-and-15, Favre rolls to his right but then throws back across the middle of the field, and it is intercepted by Tracy Porter (who would also victimize Peyton Manning on the biggest play of the ensuing Super Bowl).  So, overtime.

 

New Orleans wins the toss and elects to receive (they thought about taking the wind, but then looked up and realized they were playing in a dome).  Pierre Thomas returns the opening kickoff all the way out to the Saints' 39, a defensive holding call on Asher Allen on third down prolongs the drive, a two-yard run on fourth-and-one by Thomas does the same, and Garrett Hartley eventually sends the Saints to the big game with a 40-yard game-winner.

 

All this time, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history watches from the sideline as his last shot at the Super Bowl ends, then walks back to the locker room without ever stepping onto the field in overtime.

 

I guess you could consider that game the final impetus towards changing the overtime rules (first for the playoffs and now for all games), and therefore call it the Brett Favre Rule.  The Bert Emanuel reference, for anyone who didn't get it, harkens to a catch Emanuel made for the Buccaneers near the end of the 1999 NFC Championship Game in St. Louis.  Yes, the "catch," he made, even if it was overturned on replay and ruled an incompletion at the time.  What the replays showed was Emanuel catching the ball while diving and maintaining complete control of it through contact with the ground, even though the ball itself touched the ground when he landed.  The NFL later clarified that such a play IS a catch.  It wasn't really a rule change, just a sort of, 'Hey, let's get this call right moving forward," kind of thing, but the whole situation is still commonly known as the Bert Emanuel Rule.

 

And your preaching to the choir on the development of Josh Freeman.  As for your question, which it has taken me even longer to get around to than it took you in the original e-mail, that's a pretty easy one to answer.

 

As the Answer Man mentioned in that same column you refer to from a few weeks ago, the Super Bowl was wildly entertaining for this particular question-solving superhero due to the announcers mentioning the fair-catch-kick rule.  Follow the link if you want to know what I'm talking about.  Well, it turns out there were two obscure rules that came kind of close to coming into play in the Super Bowl, depending upon how much you think Joe Flacco was joking.

 

Honestly, Flacco has taken some heat for letting it slip that he talked to teammates on the sideline about coming onto the field and tackling Ted Ginn if the 49ers return man got loose on the game's final punt return.  (Post-safety kickoff return.  Whatever.)  And just like the Super Bowl announcers got the fair-catch-kick rule right during the game, the host you mentioned was absolutely correct that the officials could have – and probably would have – awarded Ginn a touchdown if he was clearly headed to the end zone before being tackled by a player on the sideline.

 

What Flacco was suggesting (probably as a joke) falls under the category of a "palpably unfair act," which is mentioned in Rule 12, Section 3, Article 3 of the official NFL Rulebook.  The Answer Man likes to think of this as a "common sense" rule designed to address anything completely ridiculous and outside-of-the-rules a player or coach might do.  When such a thing occurs, says the rulebook:

 

For a palpably unfair act: Offender may be disqualified.  The Referee, after consulting his crew, enforces any such distance penalty as they consider equitable and irrespective of any other specified code penalty.  The Referee could award a score.

 

The most famous instance of such a play is probably still from the 1954 Cotton Bowl between Alabama and Rice.  Rice's Dickie Maegle had broken around right end on a carry from his own five-yard line and looked to be in the clear for a 95-yard touchdown, but as he got to the Alabama 40-yard line he was brought down by Crimson Tide running back Tommy Lewis.  Unfortunately for 'Bama, Lewis was not in the game at the time.  He came off the bench to tackle Maegle, sending the place into utter confusion.  Eventually, the game's refs did exactly what the Super Bowl refs would have done in a similar situation: They gave Maegle and the Owls the touchdown.

 

**

 

Okay, there you have it: Part II of this weird three-parter.  Hope you enjoyed it, and remember to keep sending in your questions here.  We've got a long offseason to hash over all these off-the-wall topics.

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