Correlation between Rushing Yards, LaMichael James, and the Offensive Line
The offensive line is the most important unit on the football field. As big a difference as a quarterback can make, such as making a good team a great team, if there is a poor offensive line then the whole offense performs poorly. Since 2007 Oregon has had some of the best offensive line units in the country every year.
In 2007 the offensive line created 252 rushing yards per game, for an average of 5.3 yards per carry, and allowed only 13 sacks.
In 2008 the line got better in terms of rushing yards per game, 6.2 yards per carry, and allowing 20 sacks.
In 2009 output dipped to 232 yards rushing per game, 5.5 yards per carry, but only 13 sacks again.
Last year the line helped LaMichael James break almost every Oregon rushing record by creating 286 yards per game, for 5.9 rushing yards per carry, and a minimal 10 total sacks.
However, the problem analyzing these stats is that there was a lot of rushing yards created by LaMichael James, such as the 50 plus yard rushes he had for touchdowns. The run against Tennessee, where he cutback across the length of the field, broke five tackles en route to the end zone was mostly LaMichael using his speed and strength, but the offensive line still gets equal credit. Sure, LaMichael broke through the line plenty of times due to perfect blocking and had to run in a straight line really fast on his way for a touchdown, but a lot of those runs could be attributed to the fact that LaMichael James is simply faster than everybody else on the field.
A nice advanced statistic run by football outsiders is called Adjusted Line Yards +, also known as ALY. ALY is the extent to which we can separate the skill of the running back from skill of the offensive line. Variability of running backs is taken in to account as an offensive line who has running back who has a lot of carries and a yard per carry of 3 but also uses a running back that has a few carries and averages 8 yards per carry will skew the results. All rushes are counted but only counts the yards up to 10, meaning that a line gets credit for only 10 yards of say a 15 yard run, the reason being that no linemen has an impact on defenders more than 10 yards from the ball.
Oregon’s ALY stat was surprisingly average compared to other schools that were phenomenal rushing teams or conference championship contenders. A score of 100 means that an offensive line was average, and the standard deviation was 10. So anybody that had a score of 110 or higher had a great offensive line rushing. 120 or higher was an exceptional line. Anyone above 130 had probably one of the best offensive lines in the last 5 years. Now these stats are far from perfect, but can be used to confirm what seeing the game tells you.
Take last year’s national championship team, Auburn. They had a score of 137.1, ranking them 1st overall in the country. Another strong rushing team was Wisconsin, who uses a power rushing attack full of big backs. The Badgers line was 120.1 8, good for 6th overall. A total of one standard deviation away is the Duck’s opening opponent next season, LSU, which had a score of 112.7, the 21st highest score in the country. Surprisingly, Oregon falls close to the average with a score of 104.9, putting them at 53rd in the country. It’s shocking to see that team that averaged 286 yards rushing a game and a yards per carry of almost 6 could be ranked so average (A team very close to average that had an adjusted run-pass ratio is Kansas State, a score of 101.7, ranked 62nd overall). This can tell us one of two things, that either the Oregon offensive line is a product of the offensive scheme and isn’t accurately portrayed by the statistic (which is possible), or it means that LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner are that good of running backs.
Luckily, there are two advanced statistics that deal with the skill of a running back. The first is points over expected, or POE. The idea for POE is simple: It compares a running backs production when compared to what other running backs production might have been against the same opponent. It essentially creates a baseline running back and shows how many points more a player is worth over another. It’s the equivalent of a VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) statistic in baseball. A running back who has a score of 6 is assumed to be able to produce a touchdown more than an average FBS running back against the same opponents with the same number of carries. An adjustment has been added to account for the offensive line statistic described above, to separate the ability of the offensive line from the running back.
Hawaii’s Alex Green was a full-blown animal last year in terms of his Adj. POE score; he was +55, meaning that he was approximately 9 touchdowns better than the average FBS running back at his position. Now if we look at semi-normal running backs and take out the clear outlier, LaMichael James comes in second overall with an Adjusted POE rating of +26.4, or about 4 touchdowns and a field goal better than the average FBS running back. Just for a baseline player that also brings a smile to my face and can finally end the argument over who is better than who, Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodger had an Adj. POE of 1.7, or half a field goal better than the average runner, putting him at 153rd in the country. Shocking.
A second statistic that LaMichael James excels in is called the Highlight Yard stat by Bill C. at
Football Study Hall. It takes over for the yards rushed 11 yards or more from the line of scrimmage, the part that ALY doesn’t cover. It’s essentially a statistic showing how explosive a running back was. Half of the second level yards are credited to the running back (5-10 from the line of scrimmage), because the offensive line gets half the credit of the second level yards in the AYL statistic. So a run that goes for 72 yards, like the one LaMichael James had against Tennessee, the running back would get credit for 65 yards.
LaMichael James was the clear leader in this category with 829.8 of his yards coming in the “Highlight Yard” category. The second place runner was Mikel Leshoure of Illinois who had 789.3 “Highlight” yards. Interestingly, four quarterbacks show up in this statistic in the top 11, Michigan’s Denard Robinson (779.1), Auburn’s Cam Newton (692.9), Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez (691.4), and Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick (629.3).
So ultimately we can draw a couple conclusions from these statistics. First, the offensive line may be overrated in good it was last season, despite how good the traditional stats say they are. Maybe LaMichael James is underrated, if that is possible, as to how many points he creates and how much more LaMichael James provides our offense than fans realize (Darron Thomas did not have over 100 carries so the statistic isn’t as helpful, and Kenjon Barner was not listed).
In the offensive line’s defense Oregon has a very explosive offense, and drives are riddled with 2 and 3 yard rushes, even some negative ones, before a 30-plus yard play happens.
In terms of this year, the Oregon offensive line is replacing 2 starters (I count Darrion Weems as a returning starter because he started 6 games last year, which is enough to be considered a returning starter), and can take a varying amount of live game snaps before the offensive line starts working well as a unit. With LaMichael having as big of an impact as he does in terms of his POE and Highlight Yards it can help make up for some mistakes in the first plays, drives, or even games (fingers crossed). There’s no doubt in my mind that the offensive line will work well together as a group, the only question is when.