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In search of Chris Carson’s missing efficiency

Dallas Cowboys v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Yahoo ran a story Sunday stating Chris Carson had suffered a concussion and would not return. This story was still up on Monday. Such are the perils of traffic driven by timely attention-grabbing headlines, but that’s sort of the business at this point. I’m not trying to call anyone out, but it sure seemed like Carson suffered a concussion. Which, if he did, would make fumbling the ball an afterthought. There’s no ball security in an unconscious state. But assuming that he was not concussed, which seems like the decent thing to assume, Chris Carson fumbled again.

It’s only one and every back deserves forgiveness for one. It’s amazing dudes don’t fumble all the time. But fumbling severely hurt Carson’s value last year and this post is about his value. Specifically, how can Chris Carson be among the most consistently successful running backs in football but only modestly efficient?

As measured by Football Outsiders:

Success: 68% (2nd)

DVOA: -6.8% (28th)

He also ranks 28th in DYAR. This would seem to imply that while Carson almost never loses value as a rusher, he almost never adds value as a rusher either. Which isn’t to say he rushes for what is given. An equal explanation would be that what he is given is only ever adequate. It is true that his yards before contact are up this year and his yards after contact are at a three year low. I put some stake into the first stat, but the second stat could be skewed by a few long runs. One, even.

That said, Carson really hasn’t broken any long runs, and at least one metric indicates he is rushing for just what’s given him. Actually, it’s confusing, but according to Next Gen Stats, Carson has been one of the most consistent backs at exceeding the yardage blocked for him, doing that on 50.9% of all rush attempts, but he’s averaged only 0.08 rush yards over expected per attempt. I get some of this data could be shaky, but it’s no fun to write that every 20 words. For once I’ll be fun and stop clinging to my rotary telephone.

It doesn’t seem to me that Carson has lost any speed. His long rush for this season is only 23 yards but he was able to crack the top 20 in highest top speed. It’s not easy to make direct comparisons, of course, but next on that list at 19 is Lamar Jackson who reached 20.86 MPH, negligibly faster than Carson’s 20.8. At 17 is Nick Chubb who has been one of the better breakaway runners the last two seasons, ranking third in RYOE/Attempt in 2019 and fifth this season. It does not seem like Carson’s actually lost anything.

Judging by the percentage of stacked boxes he has seen, he’s had it easier this season. Despite being a run-first team in 2019, Carson ranked 21st in the percentage of snaps he faced 8 or more defenders in the box. Seattle’s deep passing ability probably contributes to that. This season Seattle has adopted a pass-first approach, which has led to Carson only facing stacked boxes on 13.21% of rush attempts. Love that false precision: 13.21%. In 2019 he faced stacked boxes in 21.22% of rush attempts.

By DVOA, Seattle ranks tenth in rushing efficiency. Their overall rushing DVOA matches Carson’s to a T. Carlos Hyde has been more efficient per rush attempt than Carson. Figure that, and Travis Homer has the worst DVOA among qualifying running backs, nuking the Mariana Trench with -77.8%. Pete Carroll recently called him a great mentality player, if I remember correctly. That ugly number doesn’t mean a ton given his limited attempts. But he’s not one of those guys who lifts the average with a handful of highly efficient runs.

That’s a lot of numbers! Here’s some very possibly incorrect analysis: Carson is facing more favorable defensive formations. As a runner who’s very good working through traffic, he has consistently exploited those favorable formations to consistently improve the Seahawks’ chances of scoring. Carroll has always put a great emphasis on rushing success and Carson is excelling at succeeding, to turn an awkward phrase.

The “softness” of those formations may be contributing to Carson rarely breaking free. Anyone who has watched enough football can remember a stacked box backfiring when a rusher was able to break through the first level and find few if any defenders in the second level. Facing three distinct levels of defenders could be why Carson is often breaking through the first only to be swarmed in the second.

Ultimately, I do not think we should assume Carson has lost a step, and I think DVOA is greatly underrating his value. This may sound like tinfoil-hat nonsense but I do not think judging a rusher by his play-by-play data works. DVOA does that. It also compares like to like. Which has the “advantage” of making runners look like they’re contributing more value than a neutral measure like EPA might indicate. Less than half of the league has added more than two points of EPA by running the ball. 11 teams have lost value. Seattle has added 1.44 points running the ball, presumably including rushes by Russell Wilson, and 66.62 points passing the ball. As I often say, rushing is of mostly tactical value in the NFL. It’s like a piece sacrifice which leads to a dashing and maybe unsound attack. Maybe.

Carson seems to have a great deal of tactical value because Carson consistently improves the position of his offense. There seems to be a league-wide trend against stacking the box, and the obvious way to punish that is successfully rush the ball. I do not know if Carson will eventually bust a few long runs but I don’t think it matters all that much. He complements an explosive pass game. Some of his value bleeds into that passing game. As a receiver he ranks third in the NFL among backs in DYAR, but to replace the tinfoil hat I doffed for a second, I would guess he provides value even when he’s not on the field. He helps put Seattle in the down and distances from which they can excel. At that, he’s highly efficient.