According to at least one statistic, nobody has it better than us.
|Top Ten Rushing Offenses Ranked by Yards Per Carry, 1970-2012*|
|Rank||Team||Year||Yards Per Carry||Rushing Attempts||Rushing Yards||Rushing DVOA||Rushing TDs||Record|
But, as Justin Smith says, stats are for losers. It's hard to fully appreciate the company the 49ers are in without knowing the details of the other nine rushing offenses on this list. So here's my attempt at placing the 49ers in a historical context. Let's start the countdown!
10. The 2012 Buffalo Bills. Chan Gailey has always fielded a good-not-great offense in Buffalo, using his hybrid spread/zone attack to elevate his less than stellar personnel. So what's changed this season? One player: C.J. Spiller. C.J. is currently the most explosive back in the NFL according the Football Outsiders, and he's the only player in NFL history (with more than 100 touches) to average 7+ yards on the ground and per reception. The Bills are not an elite running offense -- Football Outsiders has them ranked 7th for the season -- but Spiller has, for now, pushed their yards per carry into the top 10. It's possible they regress their way off this list as the season goes along, of course.
9. The 1990 Detroit Lions. Barry Sanders blew up the NFL as a rookie in 1989, lifting up the perpetually downtrodden Lions with a 1400+ yard season and given them their first starting all-pro player on offense since 1971. 1990 was a down year for Sanders, with only 1304 yards on the ground, but he still was able to lead the league in rushing. The Lions, though, chose to play to their strengths, sending their committee of mediocre quarterbacks on a combined 111 rushes for 623 yards. The result was a historically effective running game.
8. The 1984 Los Angeles Rams. Eric Dickerson had the single best season in history for a running back in 1984, with 2105 yards on the ground on 379 (!) carries. There's a reason Dickerson is in Canton -- we're unlikely to ever see consistently elite production from a one-man backfield ever again.
7. The 2002 Minnesota Vikings. Daunte Culpepper might not be remembered as a rushing QB, but he definitely was in 2002; amazingly, Culpepper is one of only seven post-merger QBs to attempt more than 100 rushes in a single season. And he was very successful at it: His 5.75 YPC is actually higher than Cam Newton's 2011 average of 5.60. Culpepper was also helped by an early career Randy Moss playing out of his mind (over 1300 yards!) and a career year by one-season wonder RB Michael Bennett. The 2002 season is probably why then Vikings head coach and current Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice has lasted so long in the NFL.
6. The 2007 Minnesota Vikings. With G Steve Hutchinson, C Matt Birk, and T Bryant McKinnie on the offensive line, Joe Perry in a wheel chair could have had an 1000 yard season for the 2007 Vikings. Minnesota instead fielded rookie Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, which was good enough for the sixth most efficient rushing attack since the merger.
5. The 2011 Carolina Panthers. Cam Newton and the zone read offense unsurprisingly make an appearance on this list. You can easily attribute this to player talent -- Newton, Williams, and Stewart are arguably the best backfield in the NFL -- but I wonder if some of their success is due to the paradigm shift that the Panthers started. In 2011, the Panthers were one of two teams to regularly run the zone read; in 2012, the Panthers, Seahawks, Redskins, 49ers, Jets, and Bills all use it to varying degrees. Whether the zone-read works as a long term offensive strategy remains to be seen -- the Panthers have had a noticeable drop off in running game efficiency this season -- but clearly defenses weren't ready for it in 2011.
4. The 2010 Philadelphia Eagles. Michael Vick shows up a few times in top five of this list, and its not hard to see why. Vick has been the best running quarterback of his generation, and will likely go down as the best to ever play the game. His career YPC of 7.03 is the best in the post-merger NFL, and he's the only QB to ever gain more than 5000 yards on the ground. The 2011 Eagles were also helped by sophomore LeSean McCoy, who was able to rack up 1080 yards on only 207 carries. Playing to type, Andy Reid constructed an extraordinarily efficient running game in 2010 -- but only used it sparingly.
3. The 2006 Atlanta Falcons. Jim Mora, Jr. was less selective in using his star quarterback, who had been steadily improving through his five years in the league. in 2006, Vick became the only QB post-merger to rush for more than 1000 yards, while averaging a ridiculous 8.4 YPC. He also freed up a late career Warrick Dunn to collect 1140 yards on the ground, making the 2006 Falcons one of the most dangerous running teams in history. Sadly, 2006 was the last season Vick enjoyed before his dogfighting scandal erupted. We'll never know what Vick could have done in his prime, and what he could have done to revolutionize the sport.
2. The 1997 Detroit Lions. Barry Sanders was the third back in history to collect more than 2000 yards on the ground, and with a YPC of 6.13, he was the most efficient member of the 2K club. There's not a lot to say here. Sanders may be the greatest running back in NFL history.
1. The 2012 San Francisco 49ers. Well, damn. According to YPC, the 49ers are currently more efficient on the ground than offenses featuring an early career Adrian Peterson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, and the best seasons of Cam Newton and Michael Vick. Through eight games, the niners arguably have the best running game in history.
The question is: why? All the other teams on this list either have a running QB or a record-breaking RB, yet the 49ers have neither. Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith are both good running quarterbacks, of course, but if you remove their contributions, the team would still lead all historical offenses with 5.57 YPC. Gore has been great, and according Football Outsiders, he's currently the best tailback in the NFL. His 5.5 YPC is a career high, but its not even the best in the NFL -- Adrian Peterson and C.J. Spiller both outproduce Gore on a per play basis. If the Pro Bowl were today, its not even clear if Gore would beat out Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, or Doug Martin for a roster spot.
Personally, I'd point to three factors for the 49ers success: depth, talent, and scheme. Kendall Hunter is the best RB2 in the NFL, and there's virtually no drop off between Gore and Hunter from play to play. Whereas Minnesota's running game collapses when Peterson goes to the sideline, the 49ers' remains strong with Hunter on the field. The talent on the offensive line is undeniable -- its entirely possible that all five members of the 49ers' OL end up in the Pro Bowl as starters or alternates. And finally, scheme: Harbaugh's attack, based around power blocking and deception, has no counterpart in the NFL. Just like Cam Newton in 2011, it's going to take a while for defenses to catch up to Roman's innovations, if they ever do.
Yet even with those explanations, its ridiculous that the 49ers can have this much success without all-pro talent at any offensive skill position. In terms of success and process, the 2012 49ers' rushing attack is virtually unprecedented.
*A note on the methodology: I used yards per carry, not total yards, as the measuring stick, which is somewhat unorthodox. My thinking is that efficiency is more valuable than total output in the running game -- which would you rather have, a running back who gets 100 yards on 10 carries, or one that gets 150 yards on 25 carries? Plus, a lot of bad teams rack up running yardage because they don't trust their quarterback, the same way good linebackers rack up tackles when the rest of the team is mediocre. I've also included each team's rushing Defense-adjusted Value Over Average score from Football Outsiders, whose numbers unfortunately only run back as far as 1991. You can learn more about the stat on their webpage, but basically DVOA is an efficiency metric that controls for strength of opponent and game situation. The 49ers aren't the #1 unit in history according the DVOA -- that honor goes to the 2000 St. Louis Rams -- but the 49ers still finish in the top 10.