The 10 Worst Red Zone Rushers of 2015

Andre Williams is the poster boy for goal line ineffectiveness for 2015. Who joins him on the list?

There are many times in our lives that we make mistakes, many innocent slip-ups that cause nothing more than mild embarrassment for us. Back in middle school especially, things that seem small and inconsequential now were magnified a million times over. Back then, though, that was the context of our worldview, and everything that went wrong was mortifying.

This is the same thing we run into on the football field, except our context of criticism lies between the 20-yard line and the end zone. For whatever reason, the red zone in the National Football League has a gravity to it that makes success -- or failure -- magnified.

Even though there is no statistical weight to it, this provides a good-enough benchmark for “scoring range” on a football field, and we want to know who the best rushers in the league are at capitalizing in those circumstances.

In 2015, we saw a lot of excellent moments in the red zone, but some players just buckled under pressure. Which 10 players belong in our red zone rushing hall of shame for 2015?

How We Analyze Them

Most analysts tend to look at box score statistics like yardage, touchdowns, and fumbles to judge how well a rusher performs. We do much more than that, though, because basic numbers tell a story -- but not always the whole story. We use a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP) to give context to the production that occurs on the field.

NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows, depending on how a player performs in a certain situation, how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. A 5-yard gain means a different thing on 3rd-and-2 than it does on 3rd-and-10, so why should it be valued the same? For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

It’s important, too, to look at NEP from both a cumulative standpoint -- how a player performed across an entire year -- but breaking the metric down can be even more beneficial when analyzing a player. For rushers, this means looking at how much NEP they gained on a per-carry basis in the red zone (minimum 70 total rushes).

Egg on Your Face

So, which 10 rushers in 2015 cost their teams the most in red zone Rushing NEP? The table below shows us exactly that.

Rank Player RZ Rush NEP Per Carry RZ Success Rate
1 Frank Gore -16.36 -0.45 19.44%
2 Matt Jones -8.64 -0.32 29.63%
3 Andre Williams -8.39 -0.76 9.09%
4 Chris Johnson -7.47 -0.25 33.33%
5 Alfred Morris -6.15 -0.25 24.00%
6 C.J. Anderson -4.63 -0.22 23.81%
7 Duke Johnson -4.59 -0.46 20.00%
8 Danny Woodhead -4.09 -0.20 25.0%
9 Devonta Freeman -4.02 -0.08 37.50%
10 Alfred Blue -3.94 -0.19 23.81%

We have ourselves an interesting list here, topped off by someone who has been known as one of the best short-yardage backs in the NFL for a long time now. The aging Frank Gore had been let go by the San Francisco 49ers because his age and effectiveness didn’t match his cost. So, Gore plied his trade for the Indianapolis Colts this year and was still extremely ineffectual. Now, to be fair, at 36 red zone rushes, he had more attempts in this area than many other rushers in 2015; this is why his per-play Rushing NEP in the red zone is (relatively) acceptable. In addition, the Colts lost quarterback Andrew Luck to injuries, meaning that defenses knew they would lean heavily on the run game. Still, ranking worst in Rushing NEP, third-worst in per-play Rushing NEP, and third-worst in Rushing Success Rate in the red zone, Gore was a trifecta of awful close to the end zone in 2015.

Based on my basic perception of him this season, I find it shocking that Washington’s Matt Jones makes a top-two appearance here. The rookie out of Florida seemed to be able to run at will at points in 2015, so how could he have been this bad? It turns out that 12 of his 144 rushing attempts went for 10 or more yards, accounting for 182 of his 490 rushing yards -- or 37.14% of his total rushing value. Where Jones often broke games open was in the middle of the field, and -- specifically -- on receiving plays. While he has only a moderately bad per-play Rushing NEP in the red zone, he was just ineffective overall.

The real cream of the crop for me is the New York Giants’ Andre Williams, who comes in dead last with the worst per-play Rushing NEP in the red zone among all qualifying running backs (-0.76). What this means is that -- on average -- every four carries that Williams got inside the 20-yard line cost the G-Men a field goal in expected points. In fact, his Rushing Success Rate of 9.09% tells us that he only added positive value to his team once every 10 carries on average. It’s almost baffling to me that this poor of production is possible, but the small ray of hope we have is that the Giants realized it early enough that he was only given 11 red zone carries this season. For someone whose 6-foot, 230-pound frame was touted as a prototypical goal-line back, it appears that he just won’t get the job done in close.

Two curiosities on the list include Devonta Freeman -- whose -0.08 Rushing NEP per attempt reminds us that he simply had a high volume for his Atlanta Falcons in the red zone (48 attempts; most in the league) -- and Danny Woodhead, who was one of the darlings of our red zone usage study. Woodhead’s -0.20 Rushing NEP per attempt isn’t atrocious, but it’s certainly a far cry from effective for a back whose usage increased so much near the goal line.

Our final fun fact goes to Washington once again, as it appears that Alfred Morris was almost as ineffective as his teammate Jones near the goal line. On 52 rushing attempts in the red zone between them, they scored just three times, averaged 2.0 yards per attempt, and had just a 26.92% Rushing Success Rate. High on Washington’s offseason shopping list has to be a good short-yardage runner.