Shonn Greene Deserves the Lead Running Back Role in Tennessee
There’s just “no respect” for some players in the NFL. Try as they might, no matter what they do or how much they give, public perception holds them as atrocious players, or worse - mediocre and forgettable.
Rodney Dangerfield feels your pain, guys.
These NFL sad sacks have an element of a clown to them: every time they succeed, something knocks them back down in our eyes. I’m here today to demand serious recognition for one of these so-thought buffoons who is much more Zeppo or Gummo Marx than Groucho or Harpo. He’s been quietly one of the most consistent players in the league as a historically inconsistent position. Like an experimental off-Broadway hit that the public condemns when it’s brought to the big stage, Shonn Greene has been one of the steadiest runners over the last five years. He, not rookie Bishop Sankey, deserves the starting running back role in Tennessee.
Shonn Greene was selected with the 65th overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, who liked him so much that they traded up twelve spots to take him. In his first two years in the league, Greene was relegated to a complimentary role behind two legendary runners in Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson, yet he still put together a rookie and sophomore campaign of 510 yards rushing (5.0 yard per carry average) and 766 yards rushing (4.1 yard per carry average), respectively.
In 2011, he was named the starter for the team, and proceeded to rattle off two back-to-back 1,000-plus yard rushing seasons, as well as yards per carry averages of 4.2 and 3.9. Greene, while not flashy by any means, had been very valuable as a starting runner by standard statistics. Yet he never became a superstar and was somewhat ridiculed as a bust for not achieving “three-down back” status.
This lack of love sent Greene packing from the bright lights of Broadway to the Music City in 2013, where he slotted in as the “thunder” change-of-pace back to Chris Johnson’s “lightning” for the Tennessee Titans. Even in a reduced role, he put up nearly 300 rushing yards on just 77 attempts for a 3.8 yard per carry average, not to mention vulturing four touchdowns. Then, with Johnson being cut in the 2014 offseason, the starting job in Tennessee’s backfield flew wide open. Second-round rookie Bishop Sankey is penciled into it, but Greene has proven in the box score beyond a shadow of a doubt that he deserves the first crack at this job. So where’s the love? With our signature metrics here at numberFire, we’ll measure just how much respect Greene deserves.
No Stage Fright Here
Here at numberFire, we've developed a way to peer behind the numbers in NFL box scores, our signature metric: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure of just how much a particular player has influenced his team's chances of scoring on a particular drive. For our purposes with Shonn Greene, we will examine Rushing NEP, which is the NEP accumulated solely on rushing attempts. For instance, if Greene carries the ball, he will be credited (or penalized) for the difference in his team's expected points between the beginning and end of the play. For more on NEP, check out our glossary here.
By looking at Greene's NEP totals, we can assess in a more in-depth way how effective he has been at benefiting his team, which does seem like a valuable commodity for a potential lead runner. The table below shows Greene's ranks in the numberFire rushing metrics for his career: Rushes, Rushing NEP, and Rushing NEP per attempt (a measure of efficiency in rushing).
|Year||Rushes||Rush NEP Rank||Rush NEP per Attempt Rank|
When examining this, we can see that Greene has been scarily consistent in his production from year to year, excepting his rookie season, in which he was only Thomas Jones' change-of-pace. For five consecutive years, his whole career, he has ranked inside the top 30 runners in the NFL with 100 or more carries both in total rushing value and efficiency. Shocking, right? Known primarily as just a hard-nosed thumper, Greene clearly was a steady and well-rounded back and certainly worthy of a starting role among the best 32 backs in the league. If we excuse his usage-stunted rookie 2009, he has been a consistent top 20 running back every year he has played, and most of this behind a fairly suspect Jets offensive line. He now runs behind a wall of behemoths (Titans?) that specialize in road-grading in Tennessee, the perfect situation for a fall-forward, struggle for every inch hammer-back like Greene.
Hitting Your Mark
Yet, in today's NFL, a running back must not only rush effectively with the ball. He must be versatile enough to catch passes and provide help in the passing game. For this reason we must consider Greene's receiving game metrics, and it's for this reason that I refer to him as a fully competent, starting "three-down back", not just "starter-worthy". The below table shows Greene's ranks as a receiving back over his career in three of our numberFire metrics: Reception NEP (NEP gained solely on plays resulting in a reception) and Reception NEP per target (efficiency in the receiving game).
|Year||Rec||Rec NEP Rank||Rec NEP per Target Rank|
In no season has Greene caught more than 30 passes, and he was actually only once targeted more than 40 times (41 targets in 2011), likely because his career catch rate is fairly lackluster (57.25%). Yet, with the ball in his hands as a receiver, he has been a top 30 receiving back from 2010-2012 both in Reception NEP and Reception NEP per target. In volume and efficiency both, he was starter level in this timeframe. In 2013, his volume dropped off as a second-stringer, and his Reception NEP plummeted as a result. Yet he still was around the top 50 at the position, qualifying as a solid backup in this quality. Due to the reduced nature of his role, this is an understandable level of production.
Every scout and fantasy expert is on Bishop Sankey as the heir apparent to the starring role of the Titans backfield, but he will have to pay his dues in the ensemble for now. I could see his contribution in Year 1 primarily limited to third-down duties and pass catching work, areas which he excelled in at The University of Washington. He will have to take time to learn blocking schemes to protect fragile quarterback Jake Locker, and has never been a stellar between-the-tackles runner on the college game tape I've seen. This is where Greene excels, and where a strong running game begins.
Given the proper volume of the role, Greene should be a very competent running back in the Tennessee offense. The offensive line for the Titans was ranked fourth in the league by ProFootballFocus's run blocking metrics in 2013, and they've likely actually improved by adding a few more pieces. Greene has proven over a five year NFL career that, while he won't be the flashy leading man of an offense, this should-have-been from Broadway can be a versatile and reliable player in this promising cast of characters. I expect Greene to play the Ryan Mathews role and Sankey the Danny Woodhead part in 2014 in Ken Whisenhunt's Titans offense. Greene has earned his time in the limelight, and it's about time we applaud him for his efforts too.