3 Things Justin Forsett Has Taught Us in 2014
The story of Justin Forsett in 2014 has been strange, unpredictable and awesome. Gary Kubiak becoming the offensive coordinator in Baltimore led to Forsett signing with the team, but at the time, little was known about how Ray Rice's situation would unfold. Forsett, in April, was a 28-year-old guy added for depth and security.
The Ravens already had Bernard Pierce, who saw touches in the team's backfield with Rice in 2013, and in May's draft, Baltimore selected Lorenzo Taliaferro in the fourth round. The backfield was crowded, and given the offensive line's trouble a year ago, it was one that didn't have a lot of appeal heading into the 2014 season.
When the Ravens parted ways with Rice in September, it opened up an opportunity for Forsett to steal some - not all - work. Fast forward to Week 13, and Forsett is now the running back leader in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP).
This is Forsett's fifth NFL team. Before 2014, he had never toted the rock more than 118 times in a single season. He had never rushed for more than 619 yards. But today, Justin Forsett is a now-29-year-old 1,000-yard runner in a league that has shifted its focus to the passing game. Justin Forsett, in 2014, is the best running back in the NFL.
His path to success isn't a common one, but it's taught us a few lessons here in 2014. Let's take a look at what those are.
1. Never Write Off a Journeyman Player
When Ray Rice was cut, I dug into what it meant for the Ravens in both real and fake football. My analysis, in hindsight, was kind of weak. After noting that Forsett's numbers were pretty efficient throughout his career, I took the easy way out, noting:
But again, Forsett is somewhat of a journeyman running back who's 28 years old. Do the Ravens want to trust him carrying the ball 200 or more times this season?
Sometimes we - I - fall into the trap in thinking or assuming coaches know what they're doing. If Justin Forsett hadn't seen quality playing time in backfields where he should have been able to compete, he must just not be a good running back. Or, at least, that's what I thought back in September. Clearly that's not the case given what Forsett's done in 2014.
And what he's done is remarkable. Not even counting his performance against San Diego on Sunday, which may end up boosting his numbers, Forsett was a whole 10 Rushing Net Expected Points ahead of the second-place Jamaal Charles entering Week 13. That's the same margin as Charles to the 13th-best runner, Arian Foster.
With each rush, Forsett has been adding 0.18 points to his team's total this season. Among all running backs with 150 or more touches since 2000, that Rushing NEP per rush rate is the fourth-best we've seen, behind only Marshall Faulk in 2000, Maurice Jones-Drew in 2006 and Jamaal Charles in 2010.
Justin Forsett not only has been sensational this year. He's been historical.
2. Gary Kubiak Is a Great Offensive Coordinator
We also can't ignore what Gary Kubiak and his zone-blocking scheme has done for this offense. After Baltimore signed Kubiak, I mentioned that the hire was a good one due to the team's offensive line issues and the fact that he's had an undervalued impact on quarterbacks. You know Matt Schaub? Yeah, well, he was really good at one point, all thanks to Kubiak's direction. (There's data in the linked article above to show this, because I know it's an insane thing to mention in 2014.)
Not only is quarterback Joe Flacco having a career year according to our metrics, but the team's running game has gone from the worst in the league in 2013 to a borderline top-10 one, per our schedule-adjusted metrics. As a result, the Baltimore Ravens had the 10th-best offense in the NFL entering Week 13.
3. Bernard Pierce Isn't a Good Running Back
Part of the reason the Ravens rushing attack isn't ranked higher is because of Bernard Pierce.
During Pierce's rookie season, he rushed to a -7.24 Rushing NEP total on 109 touches, good (bad) for a -0.07 per rush NEP average. That was his rookie season though, so it was fine to give him a slight pass for his inefficiencies.
Last year was worse -- no running back in the league with 100 or more touches had a worse Rushing NEP per rush average than Pierce. But his teammate, Ray Rice, was right there with him, ranking as the second-worst rusher in the NFL. That led us all to believe that his second season could've been the result of poor offensive line play, which isn't false. We all know how bad that line was in 2013.
But behind the same line as Forsett in 2014, Pierce has a -9.01 Rushing NEP (-0.13 per rush), which falls in between his freshman and sophomore seasons from an efficiency standpoint. Meanwhile, as I've mentioned over and over again, his teammate is the most effective running back in the entire NFL.
So thanks to Justin Forsett, we now know, officially, that Bernard Pierce really just isn't a good running back.