Thursday, July 21, 2011

Matt Forte vs. Adrian Peterson

A couple days ago, KC Joyner, ESPN's football stathead, apparently posted an article where he compared backs based on their total yards from scrimmage over the last three seasons and decided that Matt Forte was pretty comparable to the premier back in his division, Adrian Peterson. Then yesterday one of the gentlemen from Pro Football Focus used some of their own metrics to absolutely refute that argument.

The interesting thing about this argument is the metrics that both men choose to use to measure Forte. Joyner notes that the Bears' run-blocking, based on his statistics, has been much worse than the Vikings' and that Forte has still performed quite well. He also notes that people seem to ignore Forte's statistics as a receiver when comparing him to other backs. He basically makes the point that Forte is undervalued because of his versatility, something that common sense would tell you should be a reason to rank him higher.

The PFF guys disagree with this argument by stating that the Vikings' run-blocking was actually worse over the last two years than the Bears', something I have a hard time believing, even if I like PFF on balance, because in this case it's ESPN's offensive line statistics (as well as Football Outsiders, which I believe had the Bears ranked lower both years) and the eyes of everyone in the entire free world vs. PFF's stats. They also state, for whatever reason, that you can't give Forte credit for being a better receiver than Peterson because Forte catches deeper passes than Peterson so that makes his numbers deceptive. Huh?

Seriously, based on some highly skewed statistic analyzing "Depth of Target", the guy argues that Forte's not much better than Peterson as a receiver, he just has more yards because the Bears target him deeper down field.

You know why they do that, guys? It's because Forte's a better receiver. You can actually have him run routes and go farther downfield and use him as a viable deep threat, while Peterson fulfills only the traditional runningback role as a checkdown receiver. Anyone who reads this site knows I'm usually 100% in favor of new statistics, but that's just stupid. Let's say we apply that metric to wide receivers. You can no longer call Randy Moss the greatest deep threat of all time because, whatever, the Vikings and Patriots just threw the ball to him when he was deep downfield. His ability to beat coverages deep isn't like, a skill or anything. Totally just a scheme issue.

I get what the PFF guys think they are trying to say with this statistic, which they point out by saying that a guy who gets a 20 yard reception 20 yards downfield gets easy yards because the yards all came through the air, and that a guy who gets a 20 yard reception by taking the ball 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage and rumbling for 22 yards is more impressive. I would agree with that, too, except Peterson doesn't do that. If Peterson and Forte had the same number of receiving yards and Forte earned all of his through the air while Peterson earned most of them on the ground, okay, but they don't and he didn't. Peterson doesn't gain a lot of yards in the receiving game, thus he doesn't merit many targets. There's probably not a single scout in the NFL who'd tell you that Peterson was anywhere near the receiving threat, downfield or coming out of the backfield, that Forte is. That's just common sense.

For what it's worth, I don't think Matt Forte is a better runner than Adrian Peterson (his numerous issues in short yardage alone should tell you that), but neither does KC Joyner. He's merely arguing a very valid point, which is that, considering a runningback's job is to help the offense move the ball, people shouldn't underrate his contributions as a receiver.

I'd also argue that something PFF uses against Forte, his lack of touches vs. Peterson, would actually seem to show that Forte may be even more effective if he was utilized as often as Peterson is. I'd say that argument's pretty easy to make when you compare Forte's first-half statistics (when Martz was busy ignoring the run) to his second-half stats, when the team finally began running the ball:

First half: 104 carries, 401 yds, 3.9 ypr, 3 TDs, 29 catches, 315 yds, 3 TDs

Second Half: 133 carries, 668 yds, 5.0 ypr, 3 TDs, 22 catches, 232 yds, 0 TDs

In the first half, while Forte was featured more as a receiver (because the team threw the ball more. Science!), he averaged just 17 touches a game (and only 13 rushing attempts) for an average of 90 yards from scrimmage per game.

In the second half, Forte averaged almost 20 touches per game (17 rushes) for an average of 113 yards from scrimmage per game.

In all, Forte ended the season with 1,069 yards rushing and 547 yards receiving for a total of 1616 yards and 9 TDs from scrimmage. While that's a very respectable total, one can only hope that Martz' late emphasis on balance will carry over into this year and that Forte's entire season will resemble his second half numbers, which would project over a full year to 266 carries for 1336 yards rushing and 44 catches for 464 yards through the air, giving him 1800 yards or more from scrimmage. That's a total I'd be happy to take from any back, whether they're Adrian Peterson or not.