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The Curse of 370

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On their current roster, the Washington Redskins have one running back on pace to fall victim to a specific curse, and another back who can tell him all about it. Clinton Portis currently leads the NFL in carries (163), yards (818), and rushing touchdowns (7). If Portis continues as he has, he'll end the 2008 regular season with 373 carries, which puts him just over a line of demarcation that has helped end the most productive phases of many great backs before him.

In 2005, current Washington backup Shaun Alexander rushed 370 times for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground for the Seattle Seahawks. He won the NFL MVP award and helped the Seahawks get to their first Super Bowl. After two more seasons of injuries and ineffectiveness with Seattle, he was out of the league, waiting for a team like the Redskins to make a call and offer him a job as an injury replacement. What happened to Alexander, and many before him, was the Curse of 370 -- the phenomenon discovered by Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz in 2004. It goes a little something like this:

On 27 different occasions in NFL history, a running back has carried the ball 370 or more times in the regular season. You can sort those backs into three groups: backs that got hurt and were never the same, backs whose productivity just fell off, and Eric Dickerson.

Dickerson went over 370 carries four different times -- in 1983, 1984, 1986, and 1988. Ricky Williams (2002 and 2003) and Emmitt Smith (1992 and 1995) are the only other exceptions, and both backs saw a serious downturn in overall productivity after the second time for various reasons. Other than that, you're looking at a couple of backs who got out of the fire just in time, and a bunch of cautionary tales.

Here are the top 10 backs in single-season carries, and the results that followed:

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After running at least one back into the ground every season from 2002 through 2006, the league seemed to smarten up. 2007 was the first time since 2001 that no back broke the 370 barrier. Portis led the league in carries with 325, and you now hear more about running back committees -- with workload issues specifically mentioned -- than at any other time in recent memory.

Jim Zorn was Seattle's quarterbacks coach when Shaun Alexander went over that wall and never came back. If Alexander does nothing more in Washington than serve as a reminder of the price paid by the running back as workhorse, he'll be worth whatever the Redskins paid for his services: He could save Clinton Portis' career by his example.

By Doug Farrar  |  October 21, 2008; 10:48 AM ET  | Category:  NFL Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The Value of Rushing Titles | Next: The Curse of 370, Part 2

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Edgerrin James--before his 370 season, he never missed a game and averaged 4.32 ypc. In the 3 years after, he missed 15 games and averaged 3.94 ypc. In the full 7 years and 7 games since, he has averaged 3.96 ypc. While the injury problems were temporary (he has only missed one game since 2003), I would say that his numbers would easily qualify as a lack of effectiveness. Please note that the Curse of 370 notes that this lack of effectiveness HAS HAPPENED, not the specific reason for it.

LaDainian Tomlinson--Tomlinson does strike me as an exception, but the FO crew have often described his as being the one case of the Curse taking two years, hence his severe 2004 decline. However, Tomlinson also rebounded afterward.

Jerome Bettis--One of the most obvious cases of a decline in productivity. In his first five seasons (the last being his 370 season), Bettis missed two games and averaged 1237 yards on 298 carries (4.15 ypc). In his last 8 seasons, he missed 14 games and averaged 934 yards on 249 carries (3.76 ypc).

Jamal Lewis--Similar to Bettis, but more extreme. In his first 3 seasons (skipping the 2001 season that he missed due to injury), he averaged 1586 yards on 335 carries (4.74 ypc). (If that injury season is included, he still averaged 1189 yards on 251 carries.) Since then, he has averaged 1087 yards on 279 carries (3.88 ypc--this average includes this season; the yearly averages do not). The one really unusual thing about Lewis is that he actually missed 16 games (the 2001 season) before his 370 season but has only missed 6 games in the 4.5 years since.

John Riggins--his production was essentially the same after as before the 370 season, but perhaps the reason his case is so odd is that he, statistically, was never particularly effective. He averaged 3.89 ypc for his career (3.81 ypc after his 370 season, 3.91 ypc before and during the season). That he only played 2 seasons after his 370 season is also a possible confound. It also could be that he simply was able to overcome the Curse because of his relatively limited use beforehand. In any event, his situation was so different from any other back considered that it's rather logical for him to be an exception.

I would say that LdT is an exception (probably because of his judicious use since his second season and the fact that he only narrowly surpassed 370 carries then), but I don't think any of the others mentioned really are.

Posted by: Shattenjager | November 1, 2008 11:09 AM

I love footballoutsiders but I have to question this 370 thing. What about LT? he had 370+ in 2002. What about John Riggins? He had 370+ in 1983 at age 34 and the his per carry average INCREASED over the next two years before retiring at 36.

And, it does not take expert statistical analysis (which I do credit FO for) to guess that Portis's career will go downhill after this year. Most people had written him off BEFORE this year as a small back playing power ball who had taken too many hits. And while he is having a great year, it is unlikely at his age (though relatively young, he is old in terms of years and carries) and size that he will have many or any years like this one going forward.

Posted by: Redskin Fan | October 22, 2008 1:49 PM

Um...what about Edgerrin James, Ladainian Tomlinson, Jerome Bettis, and Jamal Lewis?
(I could probably find more, but don't really have the time)

They all did great for quite some time, if not even better than they had been doing previously, after going over the 370 mark.

And James came pretty close to passing it two other times and has had a pretty heavy workload nearly every year despite putting up great numbers.

Also just looking at Emmitt Smith's stats, he played pretty darn well for years after going over the mark twice.

He also came within a few carries of 370 two other times back before he broke the mark the second time.

Posted by: Chris | October 22, 2008 12:02 PM

lol

Posted by: Anonymous | October 21, 2008 6:18 PM

we gonna tackle dat ni99a wen dat punk b plyin da vikings. shyt fat pat nd kevin willums :->

Posted by: Pat Williams | October 21, 2008 6:17 PM

Shekb-You're absolutely right. This 370 thing is bunk. It's simple regression to the mean and normal injury rates. There's nothing special at all about 370 or "overuse" in general.

Posted by: Ted | October 21, 2008 6:05 PM

Shekb, certainly easier to absorb. there are a couple more apecific points about workload I want to make in another Smarter Stats column down the line, but this piece at least gets it out there.

Posted by: Doug Farrar | October 21, 2008 3:42 PM

I'd be interested to see what happened to guys who got, say, between 350-370 carries, or 325-350. Is 370 really all that special a number for determining rb breakdowns, or is it just easier to absorb the info due to small sample size?

Posted by: shekb | October 21, 2008 3:04 PM

I'm back...this story is triflin'@

Posted by: Prison Balls | October 21, 2008 2:42 PM

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