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I'm Not Saying Arian Foster Is The Best, Just That He's Better Than Anyone Else

Check out my standard deviation.
Check out my standard deviation.

Aaaaahhhh!!! AAAAAAAHHHHH!!!! Arian Foster's hurt AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!

Ok, I'm done. 

If I were a national writer, I'd write about how losing the league's leading rusher (despite the fact that he's not "lost") would critically impact the Texans' offense.  I would do this despite the fact that I'd probably already written Foster off after Vonta Leach left.  Then I would sit back and watch my clicks pile up in lieu of watching football.

Since I'm not a national writer, though, I feel that I have a little more liberty to apply common sense to the situation.  Word around the campfire is that Foster's injury is simply a re-aggravation of his earlier injury and that he should be available for Week One, so rather than employ some good ol' fashioned fear mongering, I'd like to touch on a topic that's been bugging me ever since football returned.  It may be a bit dated, but I didn't have the outlet until just now, so please indulge me.

With that said, I'm going to invite you to join me in a world where Arian Foster is healthy (yay!), Chris Johnson is playing (boo!), and women can't get enough Vega (because it's my make-believe world).

Why would I take you to a world which is half awesome, half disappointing, and half clearly make-believe (and where the rules of math are subject to my own personal whim)? 

I take you there simply to make a point. 

See, once football returned, national talking heads started talking about the upcoming season, and naturally a good percentage of that talk revolved around who would be best running back in the NFL during the upcoming season.  The discussion primarily revolved around four players:  Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, and Jamaal Charles.

The reason I got so fired up was that many of these heads projected Peterson to be the best, followed by Johnson, Foster, and then Charles.  My immediate reaction was that these "analysts" must have accidentally deleted the 2010 season from their mental DVRs, but I forced myself to calm down and look at the stats before drawing my own conclusion.  Then I got mad.

Let's start with a very generic look at these backs.  Without question, Adrian Peterson has the most proven and consistent history.   He has four seasons under his belt with 1,300 yards (technically 1,298 last year, but close enough).  His 2008 season was spectacular, and while he's been unable to replicate that, his last two seasons have been very solid and remarkably similar. 

Arian Foster had a breakout season last year where he led the league in rushing yardage, touchdowns and yards from scrimmage.  While many say he came out of nowhere, he did provide hints of his potential in late 2009. 

Chris Johnson had an unbelievable 2009, and, not surprisingly, was unable to replicate it in 2010.  Still on the surface, it appears that he had a very solid season in 2010 that was, looking at the traditional stats, oddly similar to Peterson's.

Jamaal Charles is the real wildcard here.  He's had some absolutely stunning stats the last few years, but has yet to be the feature guy in that backfield for reasons that even Kubiak would find curious. 

Now let's break out of the box a little bit.  Pro-Football-Reference has a stat called Approximate Value (AV) which is similar to Win Shares in baseball, and essentially an attempt at developing a method to compare players.  Truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of approximate value because by its very nature, it makes it difficult to draw conclusions.  Its intended purpose is to be able to compare the seasons and careers of any two players from any era at any position.  Obviously, though, when comparing Ronnie Lott's 1991 season to Andre Johnson's 2009 season, a huge number of assumptions must be made and therefore the ability to draw precise conclusions is severely compromised.   

Back to our numbers can't be used here because longevity plays into that calculation, but last season, Arian Foster led these four backs with an AV of 20.  In fact, he's the only one of the four to ever have a season with 20 (Chris Johnson's 2009 season was a 19).  Now I'm not arguing that Foster's 2010 was better than CJ's 2009 (remember, it's approximate value), but it is damn impressive.  Rounding up 2010, Peterson had a 10, CJ a 13, and Charles a 17.

Shifting to Football Outsiders, Foster, Peterson, Johnson, and Charles rank 2, 5, 31, and 1 respectively in DYAR, and 4, 7, 33, and 1 respectively in DVOA.  My favorite thing about FO stats is that they attempt to account for the variation of the defenses played. 

The first thing that jumped out at me here is that CJ was pretty overrated last year, and a closer look at his season shows why.  His top games were against Oakland, Dallas, Washington, and Houston (wk 15) - not exactly the stalwarts of defensive football last year.  He also got shut down by Pittsburgh, Denver, Houston (wk 12), Jacksonville (wk 13), and Indy (wk 17).  Outside of Pittsburgh, that's not really that much of a stronger list than the former.  We should really take pause before expecting a bounce back to 2009 form next year - even more so when you add in the contract situation.

The other thing that should stand out from the FO stats is that Jamaal Charles is really, really good.  I mean, I knew he was good, but I didn't realize that he was "potentially best back in the NFL" good.  More on that later. 

Let's move on to an absolutely awesome site that I just recently discovered:  If you haven't checked it out, step away from this post for a second, grab your calculator and pocket protector, tape up the nose of your glasses, and head on over.  I'll wait.

Ok, good. 

This site works mostly around the premise of Win Probability, which is also similar to Win Shares in baseball, but done differently than Approximate Value.  Essentially, the site calculates the probability of victory for each play based on various elements and what seems to be a pretty beastly regression analysis and then divvies that probability to players accordingly.  It also has drawbacks, of course, like the fact that it uses league wide stats for calculations (i.e., it does not consider the strength of a team/opponent), but from what I've read so far, it seems like the approach which best employs a true academic statistical model. 

Of our four running backs in question, Arian Foster leads the way ranking second in Win Probability Added (behind LeSean McCoy, who also leads the league in capital letters), first in Expected Points Added, tied for fourth in Win Probability Added per Game (Charles ranks second), and third in Expected Points Added per Play (Charles ranks second).  Adrian Peterson falls in the 10-15 range for these stats, and Chris Johnson is much closer to the bottom of the rankings than the top. 

That's enough stats for now.  Let's draw some conclusions. 

As I mentioned before, I was shocked at how often Jamaal Charles ranked near the top of the advanced statistics.  A quicker look at his 2010 season showed that he was also remarkably consistent, and for some odd reason, only got more than 20 touches three times last season.  That's right, three.  Also, if you're looking for a CJ type drop-off this season, note that he had a similarly awesome second half in 2009 (and oddly had more touches per game) and actually improved on it.

Now if we take a quick look at the teams involved, and only taking into consideration what we know now, I am even more convinced that Foster tops the NFL depth chart.  As is evident by their approach to the draft, and obvious to anyone that was subjected to the football enema that was the 2010 season, the Texans are content to ride their existing offense, while focusing on improving the defense (and early returns are promising).  It is reasonable to expect, then, that the offensive production should be fairly similar.  In other words, the only reason that anyone can really give for an expected drop off is's never done it before.  Everybody has to start somewhere.  Furthermore, since the defense should get better, Foster should get more consistent touches - Kubiak notwithstanding.

If you attribute Chris Johnson's decline last season to the fact that defenses were able to focus on him more, then you should absolutely not expect a rebound this season.  The coaching staff has been completely revamped, the best quarterback on the roster ranked 23 in Win Probability Added, 32 in DYAR and 35 in DVOA, and they have had no offseason to work on putting it together.  It's probably a safe bet that defenses will still be keying in on CJ next season.  And I would even make that argument had he participated in a full training camp.

Adrian Peterson is in a similar position, as the Vikings' starting quarterback in 2011 will either be a washed up Donovan McNabb or rookie Christian Ponder.  Also, while still only 26, he is the oldest of this bunch, and running backs are most definitely not like a fine wine.  I'm not suggesting he's on the decline, but I don't see anything to indicate that we should expect more than he produced last season - which, by the way was not bad, but not extraordinary.

Lastly, while I become more and more intrigued by Jamaal Charles, until the Chiefs realize that giving your best player the ball is sound football strategy, he cannot be reliably expected to produce elite numbers - and the Chiefs will continue to be the Chiefs.  That's probably the only thing really holding Charles back from being discussed with the elite backs.  He also doesn't score as many touchdowns, but that's pretty highly correlated with the lack of touches.  Still, if the Chiefs were to designate him a feature back, Jamaal Charles could legitimately be the best running back in football, though the offseason addition of Le'Ron McClain won't help.

In the end, you can still argue that Foster has only done it once.  I might also grant you the argument that he may lose touches to Ben Tate, and we can now add in concern about his hamstring.  Still, the other players have at least equal, if not greater, cause for concern.  Johnson is piling up roadblocks faster than he is rushing yards, Peterson's offense continues to regress, and Charles doesn't get consistent enough touches.  Add that all up and I would still argue Foster clearly has the best opportunity to meet his 2011 potential and should be considered the best running back in the NFL.

The exciting part about all this is that your Houston Texans now employ the top running back and wide receiver in the league. 

Now let's just pray he gets back on the field healthy and that CJ continues to hold out.