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Kount It!: Thurman Thomas, LT, and Marshall Faulk: Who’s the (Statistical) Man?

Hello fellow #BillsMafia members, and welcome to the first edition of Kount It! on billsmafia.com! Over the coming weeks, months and seasons, this column will feature statistical analysis (with some opinion pieces sprinkled in) pertaining to the Bills, both past and present.

Who am I, you ask? My name is Don Ko, formerly of blogabills.com. I’m a lifelong Bills fan who hasn’t missed watching or attending a Bills game since cellphones weighed twenty pounds and ESPN only had one channel. Like many of you, I’ve been through the highs of seeing the 51-3 whooping laid on the Raiders, the infamous 77 seconds against the Broncos, and the parade of Bills from the early 90’s being inducted into the Hall of Fame; but I’ve also been through the lows of the Music City Miracle Forward Lateral, the Trent Edwards era, and the tenures of Mularkey, Jauron and Dog the Bounty Hunter Gregg Williams.

Through it all (and in direct contradiction to how I lead the rest of my life), I’ve tried to maintain a pragmatic, measured and non-reactionary view on the Bills, especially when it comes to my writing. While that might not fit the 24/7,  “Here’s my opinion even though I’m not really watching the games” news cycle most sports are on now (I’m looking at you, Skip Bayless), I feel it’s always good to take a step back, combine anecdotal observations with statistical facts and avoid the kind of reactionary drivel that clogs up ESPN.com message boards.

On with the “show”…..

Is Thurman Thomas the 3rd Most Versatile RB over the Last 30 Years?

ESPNWeekend2010-067Photo: Jeff Kern

My initial interest in where Thurman belonged on the Mount Rushmore of Versatile RBs was piqued when I read Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback from June 18th. In the piece, King makes a strong case for Marshall Faulk being the most “versatile” running back in the last 30 years, with LaDainian Tomlinson 2nd and our #BillsMafia favorite, Thurman Thomas, at 3rd, with King’s reasoning for Thurman’s spot being that “his prime wasn’t quite as productive as Tomlinson’s, but great anyway.”

My main hesitation in accepting that reasoning (for what is admittedly a fairly subjective observation) was that the three RBs in question reached their peaks in three different eras of the NFL. While there’s no doubt that the K-Gun offense helmed by Jim Kelly was wildly prolific at its peak, the most TDs Kelly threw in any given season was 33 in 1991. By way of comparison to the way NFL offenses operate today, last year alone 4 QBs eclipsed that mark, and Tony Romo was just two behind Kelly’s career high with 31 TDs.

Do I believe that this means that Matthew Stafford or Romo are better QBs than Kelly? Of course not (though I’m sure we could find Lions and Cowboys fans who would debate the point). But it’s not hard to see that it was simply a different time in the NFL, when offenses didn’t rely so heavily on the passing game. As we are looking at versatility in RBs, the disparity in the passing stats alone from the different eras would suggest that Thomas’ stats may be deflated by his era.

For example, last year each team ran about 1018 plays over the course of the season. In 1991, one of the (if not THE) best years for the K-Gun, teams averaged 972. Another 46 snaps per game for the no-huddle over the course of 16 games may not seem like much, but given how integral Thomas was to the Bills offense back then, it’s not hard to make the case that his stats would’ve seen some improvement with more snaps.

To be clear, I’m not just disputing an assertion by Peter King simply for the fun of it. Aside from being a great writer who has forgotten more about football than most of us will ever hope to know, thanks to his MMQB columns, he’s also saved me from more Monday mornings of work than a fake cough and a last-minute phone call to my boss. His piece simply made me want to take a deeper look at how the differing eras the three RBs in question played in might account for any variation in their prime-year stats.

The Wonder Years

The first step I took in making this determination was deciding when each of the three RBs in question had their “prime years”. Being that this is about versatility in a RB, I chose to use yards-from-scrimmage and total rushing/receiving TDs as my primary ways of identifying their best years. Additionally, I made use of pro-football-reference.com‘s AV statistic, which boils down most key statistics into a single number that identifies a player’s value in any given year. For the sake of having more data to look at, I also chose to identify the three best years for each RB, instead of just using one year’s stats. Below find summaries for each RB in question (all stats from pro-football-reference.com):

Thurman Thomas:

Year Age G GS Att Yds TD Y/A Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng YScm RRTD

1990

24

16

16

271

1297

11

4.8

49

532

10.9

2

63

1829

13

1991

25

15

15

288

1407

7

4.9

62

631

10.2

5

50

2038

12

1992

26

16

16

312

1487

9

4.8

58

626

10.8

3

43

2113

12

Totals:

871

4191

27

4.8

169

1789

10.6

10

5980

37

Marshall Faulk:

Year Age G GS Att Yds TD Y/A Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng YScm RRTD

1999

26

16

16

253

1381

7

5.5

87

1048

12

5

57

2429

12

2000

27

14

14

253

1359

18

5.4

81

830

10.2

8

72

2189

26

2001

28

14

14

260

1382

12

5.3

83

765

9.2

9

65

2147

21

Totals:

766

4122

37

5.4

251

2643

10.5

22

6765

59

LaDainian Tomlinson

Year Age G GS Att Yds TD Y/A Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng YScm RRTD

2005

26

16

16

339

1462

18

4.3

51

370

7.3

2

41

1832

20

2006

27

16

16

348

1815

28

5.2

56

508

9.1

3

51

2323

31

2007

28

16

16

315

1474

15

4.7

60

475

7.9

3

1949

18

Totals:

1002

4751

61

4.7

167

1353

8.1

8

6104

69

Raw Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story

The raw numbers for the best 3 years for each of the RBs backs up King’s assertion (and I’m paraphrasing here) that Marshall Faulk was a superfreak. But, raw numbers, much like HDTVs with the wrong aspect-ratio chosen, don’t show us the whole picture. Even considering the fact that he was a part of the Greatest Show on Turf that made use of many receiving weapons, he still pulled down significantly more receptions than either Thomas or LT did in their primes. Additionally, he managed to pull it off while playing four fewer games than LT in his prime 3 years, and 3 fewer games than Thomas.

LT’s record-breaking and fantasy-football-owner-pleasing TD totals obviously must play some role in this discussion, but taking into account that Faulk rushed for more yards per carry and that he hauled in more receptions for more yards per catch while playing fewer games, we have to ask how much closer their TD totals would’ve been had Faulk played in those 4 missing games.

The raw numbers are also where we can see the effect of the era that Thomas played in. Despite being one of the more prolific TD scorers amongst his contemporaries in his prime years, his TDs pale in comparison to Faulk’s and LT’s. This is to be expected, for reasons mentioned above, but shouldn’t be ignored. His yards per carry (a stat that has remained relatively constant in value over these eras) is essentially equal to LT’s, though, along with his total yards from scrimmage and receptions (which, given the difference in eras, bodes well for the Thurmanator).

Normalize This

So the raw numbers back King’s assertion: Faulk is the clear #1 in terms of most verstaile RBs over the past 30 years (and of course I understand that skills such as blocking play a part in all this; unfortunately, quantifying those stats is difficult if not impossible, so that is a caveat with any analysis we do here).

But, as I mentioned earlier, the eras the three RBs were different from each other (while Faulk’s and LT’s were reasonably comparable, Thomas came from a much different time in the NFL).

(Hopefully) without boring you, I do want take a minute to delve into how we normalized the stats across these eras. First, I pulled the total stats for all RBs in the NFL for the 3 prime years for each of the RBs we’re studying here, and averaged those 3 years of stats to result in 3 different sets of numbers indicative of three different 3-year periods.

From there, using Faulk’s 3 year set as a baseline for NFL stats (as his era was in between LT’s and Thomas’, this was the simplest way to normalize the stats), unique multipliers for relevant stats (receptions, receiving yards, receiving TDs, rush attempts, rush yards and rushing TDs) were identified for both LT and Thomas to normalize their stats to 1999-2001 levels (Faulk’s prime).

Applying these multipliers to the Thurman’s and LT’s stats gives us a set of numbers which reflect the (sometimes significant, sometimes not) difference in eras, and allow for a better, closer to apples-to-apples comparison of the three. Below find those results:

Thurman Thomas:

Yr Age G GS Att Yds TDs Rec Yds TDs Yds Scm Total TDs

1990

24

16

16

270.43

1292.21

10.61

54.38

571.74

2.18

1863.95

12.79

1991

25

15

15

287.39

1401.80

6.75

68.81

678.14

5.45

2079.94

12.20

1992

26

16

16

311.34

1481.51

8.68

64.37

672.76

3.27

2154.27

11.95

Totals

869.16

4175.52

26.03

187.57

1922.64

10.90

6098.16

36.94

Marshall Faulk:

Yr Age G GS Att Yds TDs Rec Yds TDs Yds Scm Total TDs

1999

26

16

16

253

1381

7

87

1048

5

2429

12

2000

27

14

14

253

1359

18

81

830

8

2189

26

2001

28

14

14

260

1382

12

83

765

9

2147

21

Totals

766

4122

37

251

2643

22

6765

59

LaDainian Tomlinson:

Yr Age G GS Att Yds TDs Rec Yds TDs Yds Scm Total TDs

2005

26

16

16

334.26

1419.65

17.07

50.18

371.42

1.98

1791.07

19.05

2006

27

16

16

343.14

1762.42

26.55

55.10

509.95

2.98

2272.37

29.53

2007

28

16

16

310.60

1431.30

14.22

59.04

476.82

2.98

1908.13

17.20

Totals

988.00

4613.38

57.84

164.32

1358.19

7.94

5971.57

65.78

The Verdict

Again, we seem to be left with only one clear answer to the question of who is #1, and it is once again Marshall Faulk. He touts more total TDs and yards from scrimmage by a healthy amount over Thomas, and again, that’s with playing in 3 fewer games. While LT out-TD’d Faulk, the margin is closer with the normalized stats, and while LT maintains the edge over Faulk in terms of rushing yards (mostly by virtue of his number of attempts) and TDs, he takes a sound whooping from Faulk in pretty much every other category.

But that leaves us with the question of who is #2, which leads us back to King’s thought that LT’s prime years were more prolific than Thomas’.

In virtually every category other than touchdowns, Thurman Thomas holds an edge over LaDainian Tomlinson. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Allsport)

In virtually every category other than touchdowns, Thurman Thomas holds an edge over LaDainian Tomlinson.
(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Allsport)

LT managed to outrush and score more TDs than Thomas, even with the normalization in stats, but this seems to be largely a function of the number of attempts LT had compared to Thomas. There really is no accounting for the number of rushing TDs LT had in those dream-years for fantasy football owners, but in virtually every other aspect, Thomas holds an edge over LT.

Another key point here (a subjective one, to be sure, but key nonetheless) is that Faulk and Thomas were, at worst, the second-most important members of two of the more famous offenses of the last 30 years: the K-Gun/no-huddle, and The Greatest Show on Turf. Additionally, during Thomas’ prime, the Bills were (quite literally) going to the Super Bowl every year, and the Rams with Faulk both won and lost a Super Bowl. Those points may not be knocks against LT so much as they are indications of how truly talented both of the other offenses were, but at the very least, this has to be acknowledged.

From my (admittedly biased) standpoint, I would submit that Thomas is the 2nd most versatile RB behind Faulk, and not LT. While LT’s prodigious rushing numbers were (and are) impressive as all get-out, Thomas’ were not that far behind, and adding to the case for versatility, he played a far larger role in the Bills passing game than LT did in the Chargers’ air attack. Thomas had the advantage of a Hall of Fame coach, QB, center and more, but that shouldn’t diminish his own accomplishments.

In conclusion: Take that, King! (And please write longer MMQBs).

Thanks for Reading!

If you’ve stuck with me here till the end, I’d like to thank you for supporting the first (of hopefully many) Kount It! column on BillsMafia.com, and I look forward to continuing to contribute to BillsMafia.com. Thanks!

3 thoughts on “Kount It!: Thurman Thomas, LT, and Marshall Faulk: Who’s the (Statistical) Man?

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