Rushing Effectiveness: The Cause of 2013's Quarterback Depth?

44.3% of Christian Ponder's fantasy total this season has come from his legs.

While watching Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers yesterday, I began wondering what it would be like trying to outrun 300-pound defensive linemen as the pocket collapsed. Like, could I do it? Could I, a person of an average fitness level who drinks beer on the weekends, scamper for a first down quicker than Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers could?

Of course I couldn’t, but the fact that I even had this thought process goes to show just how statue-like those two (fantastic) quarterbacks are. When you’re surrounded by freak athletes, you’re bound to look like a pedestrian.

It’s like when you go to the basketball courts to play a little pickup with some buddies, and then all of a sudden the not-so-amateur court next to you asks if you want to play with them. You want to say no, but you play anyway because you’re non-confrontational, looking like a fool as you can’t defend the 55-year-old baller who used to play in the ACC.

Yeah, that’s happened to me. And it was awful.

We usually focus on these pocket passers – the Rivers and Manning types – when evaluating quarterback play. Often times at numberFire, we’re looking at their Passing Net Expected Points. That is, the number of points above or below expectation a quarterback is adding for his team through the air.

And while it’s certainly an accurate measurement of passing efficiency, the one thing it doesn’t capture is how successful a quarterback has been running the football. And as you’ll see, that rushing component means more to quarterbacks in 2013 than it arguably ever has.

Rushing Net Expected Points

Before I dig into how well quarterbacks are toting the rock, it’s important to remember a few things with Rushing Net Expected Points. The measure, like the passing one, looks at how many points a player is adding for his team when he runs the football. For more detailed information on the Net Expected Points (NEP) statistic, look here.

It’s very difficult to compare a quarterback’s efficiency to a running back’s, as the quarterback is typically surprising defenses when he tucks the ball in for a run. That, and running backs touch the ball more often – they’re not immune to carrying the ball for only three to four yards per carry.

In essence, an athletic quarterback’s effectiveness running the football is going to be higher than, say, Arian Foster’s. If you understand that a player’s NEP value is driven by making positive plays on a football field, you’d immediately realize that a quarterback has an advantage when running the ball.

It’s 3rd-and-10, and Andrew Luck has his Colts on the opponents’ 40-yard line. He drops back to pass, sees nothing, and takes off. In typical Andrew Luck fashion, he gains 11 yards. His team’s expected point total went from X when it was 3rd-and-10 on the 40, to Y with it being 1st-and-10 on the 29. Now that they’re in field goal range, and now that the team has a fresh set of downs, the offense's expected point total on that drive increases dramatically (Y-X).

Typical starting running backs don’t have that luxury when they’re running the ball. You won’t see a lead back take a handoff on 3rd-and-10, let alone pick up the first down on that play very often. And a lot of times, that top runner is on the bench – a third-down back is in the game for him.

This is just an example as to why quarterbacks, with a fraction of the carries, are more efficient running the ball than most every-down running backs. It’s important to recognize this before moving forward – that way numberFire won’t be hearing from people complaining about Andrew Luck being a better runner than LeSean McCoy.

Quarterback Rushing Effectiveness Since 2000

With that being said, let’s take a look at the Rushing NEP totals of quarterbacks since the year 2000. Keep in mind, the loose definition for NEP is “how many points is this player adding for his offense?”. Because different types of players (quarterbacks vs. third-down running backs vs. every-down backs) face different types of situations, it’s not fair to compare them. Instead, we compare players within these high-level categories, similar to a value analysis you'd do in fantasy football.

Below is a chart showing the top-15 quarterback seasons since 2000 in terms of how many points they added with their legs.

QuarterbackYearRushing NEP
Michael Vick200468.31
Robert Griffin III201259.29
Michael Vick200659.25
Michael Vick201051.20
Cam Newton201150.28
Cam Newton201247.16
Donovan McNabb200045.61
Michael Vick200544.09
Donovan McNabb200239.89
Michael Vick200239.21
David Garrard200836.02
Rich Gannon200035.85
Andrew Luck201235.67
Daunte Culpepper200234.97
Vince Young200634.17

Overall, I’m not sure there are many surprises on this list. You see Michael Vick’s 2004 season as the best by a running quarterback over the last 13 or so years, which actually wasn’t the season he rushed for over 1,000 yards – that was 2006 (number three on the list). This just goes to show that, even though he was picking up yards, he wasn’t necessarily picking up important ones like he did in 2004.

But really, the only player on this list that may raise some eyebrows is Rich Gannon. He added 35.85 points with his legs in 2000, running the ball 89 times. It was by far his best season on the ground, as he rushed for 529 yards and four scores. Yup, Rich Gannon did that.

I’d like to also note that there have been 120 quarterback seasons since 2000 where the passer has run for a Rushing NEP total of 10.00 or more. That equates to roughly nine per season.

Quarterback Rushing Effectiveness in 2013

Currently, we have 11 different quarterbacks in 2013 who have rushed for a Rushing NEP total of 10 or more. And folks, that’s just through the first nine weeks of the regular season (Week 10 not calculated).

The list of the most effective rushing quarterbacks in 2013 is below, as well as their extrapolated Rushing NEP total across an entire 16-game season.

QuarterbackRushing NEPExtrapolated Total
Jake Locker18.6349.69
Cam Newton24.2748.55
Andrew Luck23.7947.58
Christian Ponder13.5943.49
Alex Smith18.6737.34
Terrelle Pryor15.6635.80
Colin Kaepernick14.9629.91
Russell Wilson15.7227.95
Aaron Rodgers11.5626.42
Joe Flacco11.4622.92
Geno Smith10.6919.00

First and foremost, notice that Jake Locker and Christian Ponder are on this list, adding 18.63 and 13.59 points for their teams via the ground respectively this year. Locker’s missed time (and more time after Week 10) due to injury, and Ponder’s been in an out of the Vikings lineup as well. Even with that, however, these two quarterbacks are having top-50 seasons running the football.

The extrapolated statistics are based on per game averages, which is why Locker’s is highest despite his middle-of-the-road Rushing NEP. If he were to continue his pace and never get hurt, he would finish with a Rushing NEP of nearly 50. If you look back at the previous section, that would give Locker the sixth-best rushing quarterback season since 2000.

Unfortunately it’s appearing that Locker’s body is a bit injury-prone, so he may never live up to this rushing hype.

However, look at some of the other guys on this list. Alex Smith’s stretched out rushing metrics give him a Rushing NEP score of 37.34. That number places him right behind Michael Vick’s 2002 season as the 11th-best in the NFL since 2000.

Cam Newton may not be a surprise given his athleticism, but Andrew Luck may be considered one. If you’ve never watched Luck play, he has a tendency to pick up first downs with his legs (which is why I used him in my example above). So far this season, Luck has added over 23 points via the ground, and if he keeps it up, he’ll finish with a Rushing NEP of 47.58. Basically, he’s a healthy Jake Locker on the ground, as his potential Rushing NEP would give him the sixth-best rushing season by a quarterback over the last 14 years.

This extrapolated data should raise some eyebrows. A number above 35 – which six quarterbacks would be on pace to do if not for injury – places a quarterback in the top 10 or 11 in rushing efficiency since 2000. In other words, the 2013 season could (or could have, in the case of Locker and Ponder) create six top-10 quarterback rushing seasons when you consider every quarterback since the turn of the century.

Is This Translating to the Stat Sheet?

In terms of fantasy football, you may not really care what NEP data says. I’ll tell you that it’s very important – especially to us at numberFire – in finding fantasy success, but perhaps you’d rather see how this actually translates to these quarterbacks’ stat sheets.

We know what the rushing metrics can do for quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, so instead of looking at them, let’s dig into the average names that appear high on the list: Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, and Alex Smith. How has their rushing effectiveness impacted their stat line and fantasy football success?

Percentage of Fantasy Points on the Ground

To keep things simple, let’s just look at a straightforward fraction: The number of fantasy points from rushing divided by the number of total points scored. This will tell us the percentage of fantasy points each of these quarterbacks are scoring with their legs.

We begin with the apparent rushing efficiency master, Jake Locker. Though he’s now out for what appears to be the season, and although he was massively disappointing over his last two outings, Locker’s provided a hefty number of fantasy points via the ground this season. He had no performance better than his Week 3 game against San Diego, where he rushed five times for 68 yards and a score. That alone added 12.8 standard fantasy points to his daily total.

This season, Locker’s scored 25.5 fantasy points – factoring in a two-point loss when a fumble occurs – through running the ball. He’s posted 99.8 points in total, meaning 25.6 percent of his fantasy points have come on the ground.

Cam Newton, a player who makes a fantasy living with his legs, has scored 48.8 of his 163.7 fantasy points this season via rushing the football, which equates to 29.8 percent of his points coming from the run.

Keep in mind that Locker’s missed a little over three games this season, which is why his total points are significantly lower. The percentage, however, shows that he’s not far off from Cam Newton’s rushing-to-passing fantasy points ratio.

Why does this matter? Well, we all know that rushing yards count more than passing yards in fantasy football. Prior to Week 9, Locker was actually averaging 16.8 fantasy points per game due to his high ratio. That type of average puts him smack dab in the middle of high-end QB2 discussion.

Oh, it gets better.

Christian Ponder, too, has missed three games this year, but in his six games played, he's scored 89.4 total fantasy points. He’s been underrated from a fake football perspective, averaging 14.9 points per game.

But like Locker, this average isn’t just because of his arm. Ponder has scored 39.6 fantasy points via the run this season, giving him a percentage of fantasy points on the ground of 44.3 percent. We can credit that with the fact that he’s scored four rushing touchdowns, and he almost had a fifth against the Redskins on Thursday night.

Guys, Christian Ponder has been over 240 yards passing zero times in his six games, and has thrown more than one touchdown pass in a game once. And yet, his fantasy average is on par with Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger’s.

You could certainly blame sample size for these quarterbacks’ ground success. After all, they’ve only played in about six games this year, so their totals could be skewed by a touchdown here or there.

But that brings me to the underrated-rushers-in-fantasy-football poster child, Alex Smith. The leader of the undefeated Chiefs has been getting it done on the ground in 2013, too. He’s scored 137.4 fantasy points, but 32.5 of them have come from rushing, good for a percentage of 23.7. And while this isn’t as high as Cam’s total, for instance, it at least gives the sample size haters something to chew on. Smith has played in all nine of the Chiefs wins this season, running the ball for 25 or more yards seven times.

Terrelle Pryor: Another Level

Ponder, Smith and Locker certainly are surprises this season, and they’ve been fantasy relevant because of what they can do with their legs. By no surprise, that could be found from our Rushing NEP data.

But one player – one that was written about in depth before the season even began - is on a whole different level with this running quarterback nonsense.

Terrelle Pryor.

So far this season, Pryor has scored 122.8 fantasy points in eight games, resulting in him being a mid- to low-end QB2 for the majority of the season. But anyone who’s watched the once Ohio State signal-caller knows that his fantasy totals aren’t a result of his passing effectiveness.

Pryor has scored 62.4 points this season with his legs. For some additional perspective, Ray Rice, when you remove his reception totals, has tallied 46.9 fantasy points on the ground in the same amount of games. That’s 15.5 fewer than Pryor. For those of you who don’t remember (sorry, Rice owners), Ray was a first-round fantasy draft selection at the most important position in the fake sport.

That’s the kind of impact Pryor has had on the ground. He’s scored 50.8 percent – over half – of his fantasy points running the football this season. He’s not necessarily as efficient compared to the three aforementioned passers, which is why his Rushing NEP is lower, but he’s getting it done with volume.

If Pryor scores, say, half of that total via the run, we’re talking about one of the worst fantasy quarterbacks in the league. That’s how important running the ball can be in fantasy.

What This Means as a Fantasy Owner

No analysis is complete without questioning and predicting why something is the way that it is. Great, Alex Smith, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Terrelle Pryor are gaining a lot of fantasy points on the ground – so what?

I think the key here is to understand what was brought up a few months ago by Rich Hribar in his “Konami Code” piece. It doesn’t always matter how good a quarterback is at throwing the ball. If they have a rushing component to their game, chances are they’re going to be fantasy relevant in some way, shape or form.

And when you consider the number of quarterbacks that could end up posting high-end rushing seasons in terms of Rushing NEP, you start to see a clearer picture as to why this position in fantasy football could be even deeper than we thought.

Sure, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and a healthy Aaron Rodgers are always going to blow up the fantasy scoreboard, but the usable quarterbacks outside of them are growing by the week. And it’s not just a result of quarterback injury: rushing effectiveness by signal-callers across the league is playing a huge role in this.

Just look at the examples we’ve seen this season. Ryan Fitzpatrick starts for an injured Jake Locker against the best defense in the league, Kansas City, in Week 5. He throws for 247 yards, just one touchdown and two interceptions. His fantasy total? 21.4.

Rookie Geno Smith faces New England for the second time in his first year in Week 7, tossing the pigskin for 233 yards, one score and one pick. Because of his 32 rushing yards and rushing touchdown on six attempts, he finishes the week with a 20.5 fantasy point total.

And just two weeks later against New Orleans, Geno threw for just 115 yards. His fantasy total was 12.4. He finished as the 18th-best quarterback option with 115 yards passing, people.

I know these are mere examples, but the advanced metrics aren’t lying. The quarterback position, which is constantly evolving, is indeed turning into one where athleticism is more important, and it's translating into the pretend pigskin world. It's not just Michael Vick and Cam Newton giving you points with their legs. It's Alex Smith. It's Jake Locker. It's Christian Ponder.

Rushing metrics at the quarterback position will always be difficult to predict. But with the effectiveness at the position at an all-time high, perhaps we should begin thinking that this will soon be the norm.