Is LeSean McCoy the Best Running Back in Football?
In elementary school, there was one kid that was the most talented athlete on the recess ground. He was uncatchable in tag, and had a foot that could rocket a kickball over the fence. This guy was the unquestioned athlete of the class, and everyone knew it.
But in the fifth grade, a new athletic wonder moved to town and soon rivaled the dominant athlete for playground prowess. This new kid made picking first no longer such an easy decision. The incumbent superstar retained his title until, one day, the new kid had a particularly good showing on the basketball court. The new guy casually drained a three-pointer and proclaimed himself the school’s best athlete. This brought shock and outrage from the incumbent and his friends, and created a buzz throughout the playground that could be heard through the detention bell.
Where am I going with this? Well, last week LeSean McCoy made headlines when he told ESPN First Take that he was the best running back in the NFL. This brought about a great deal of controversy, as many think Adrian Peterson still holds that title. But instead of looking at this subjectively, let's dive right into this classic playground argument by exploring numberFire’s advanced metrics.
To start, I'll examine Shady’s monstrous 2013 season using numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. And rather than simply doing a comparison of McCoy and AP using only 2013 numbers, I figured it'd be more beneficial to use Peterson's historic 2012 campaign. After all, if McCoy could beat that under the advanced metric microscope, you'd have to believe that there's some merit in McCoy's confidence.
For the 2013 season, LeSean McCoy posted an impressive Rushing NEP of 37.12, putting him on top of the list of running backs that year. McCoy’s NEP per carry was an absurd 0.12. This means that, on average, Shady added more than one-tenth of a point each time he ran the ball. For comparison, Jamaal Charles finished with a score of 0.05, and DeMarco Murray ended the year with an average of 0.10. Finally, McCoy’s Success Rate was a whopping 51.27%, meaning well over half his carries were adding points for the Eagles. Murray finished second within this metric among 200-plus carry running backs, with a Success Rate that was nearly four percentage points lower than McCoy's, at 47.47%. McCoy's Success Rate in 2013 was also the 10th best we've seen from a 200-plus carry running back since the year 2000.
Receiving-wise, Shady was just as good. McCoy posted a Reception NEP of 31.11, which ranked 11th in the NFL among all running backs. With 64 targets on the year, his per target Reception NEP was top 10 in the NFL among running backs with at least 30 targets.
Adding up McCoy’s Rushing and Receiving NEP for the 2013 season gives him a total NEP of 68.22, good for 14th-best among all running backs since the year 2000. And remember, Reception NEP scores tend to be higher because passing and catching is more efficient than rushing, so considering McCoy did his work on the ground, this number is even more impressive.
But how does that compare to Adrian Peterson's historic 2012 campaign? It may seem odd that a 2,000-yard rushing season could actually be worse than McCoy's 2013, but remember that Net Expected Points isn't just about yardage and touchdowns - it's about outperforming expectation given particular game situations.
In 2012, Peterson posted the top Rushing NEP among running backs with a score of 36.31. On a per carry basis, Peterson was also incredibly efficient, adding 0.10 points each time he ran the ball. I know what you're thinking - those numbers are worse than McCoy's. And you're right. McCoy had a higher per rush NEP and Rushing NEP score in 2013 than Peterson did in 2012. And what's best about McCoy's 2013 campaign compared to AP's 2012 one is that Peterson’s Success Rate was 43.1%, significantly lower than McCoy's 51.27%.
As a receiver, Peterson posted a pretty poor Reception NEP of 6.04 on 51 targets, adding about 0.12 points with each pass thrown to him. Summing together Peterson’s 2012 Rushing and Receiving NEP scores gives him a total NEP of 42.35. This ranks 62nd among all running backs since 2000.
While this isn't the end-all to the argument, I think it provides a nice glimpse as to why McCoy is saying the things he's saying. Not only was Shady's 2013 spectacular on its own, but every single advanced metric favors McCoy's 2013 to Peterson's historic 2012. McCoy’s production in the run and pass game shows how good he truly was, as his Total NEP for the 2013 season ranks among the best we have seen over the last decade and a half.
As NFL executives and coaches increasingly view running backs with a “what have you done for me lately” mentality, McCoy’s more successful and more recent season prove he's the better back. So while LeSean McCoy’s statement seemed pretty bold at the time, the metrics give credence to his claim, as we may be seeing a changing of the guard after all.
So what ended up happening that one recess when I was in fifth grade? Well, the new kid challenged his rival to a race and won. Smoked him, actually. And the new kid was never picked second ever again.