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How bad has the Lions run game been since Barry Sanders retired?

A statistical analysis of the last 18 years of the Lions run game.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Sometimes an article can be premeditated. You think it up a week in advance and figure out how you’ll format it and what you’ll say. Other times they come to you in a moment of sheer ADHD thought-rage. This one is the latter. I found myself wondering more and more about the Detroit Lions run game recently. Now I’ve analyzed this thing up and down for the last two years. I’ve looked at each running back, and I’ve gone over scenarios to fix the problem on countless occasions, including last week.

What we know is that the Lions run game finished 30th in rushing yards in 2016. That’s actually an improvement over last year’s 32nd ranking. But the fact still remains that the Lions haven’t ranked higher than 17th in rushing since Barry Sanders unexpectedly retired before the 1999 season.

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everyone knows things are bad. I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore. Sorry I got a little heated there. Like I said, we know it’s bad. But is it the worst? That’s what I wanted to find out. So follow me down the rabbit hole if you will. Let’s go back and look at the last 18 years to find out just how bad the Lions run game has been.

It’s not the worst. But it’s really bad.

So the first thing we did was calculate the rushing stats of all 32 teams for the last 18 years. In my opinion, the one true way to judge a rushing attack is by yards gained. Touchdowns are nice, but football is about progressing the ball down the field. So we ranked each team by the amount of rushing yards they accrued over the last 18 years. Here’s what we found.

NFL rushing stats from 1999-2016

Team Attempts Yards Touchdowns YPC
Team Attempts Yards Touchdowns YPC
Vikings 7,947 36,581 276 4.6
Broncos 8,432 36,494 257 4.3
Steelers 8,526 34,934 247 4.1
Seahawks 8,178 34,809 245 4.2
49ers 7,949 34,781 229 4.3
Jets 8,372 34,724 220 4.1
Cowboys 8,039 34,621 228 4.2
Eagles 7,673 34,592 251 4.5
Jaguars 8,002 34,160 242 4.2
Bills 8,080 34,159 222 4.2
Panthers 8,129 33,939 250 4.1
Ravens 8,340 33,923 220 4
Falcons 7,969 33,886 250 4.1
Redskins 8,046 33,818 228 4.2
Titans 8,132 33,639 246 4.1
Giants 7,958 32,845 242 4.1
Bengals 8,156 32,825 225 4
Patriots 8,270 32,376 286 3.9
Packers 7,644 32,026 222 4.1
Dolphins 7,859 32,001 237 4
Chargers 7,903 31,644 259 4
Saints 7,597 31,202 249 4.1
Buccaneers 7,666 30,653 178 4
Bears 7,711 30,567 182 3.9
Rams 7,274 30,308 210 4.1
Colts 7,536 29,500 241 3.9
Browns 7,218 28,075 156 3.8
Texans 6,838 27,395 190 4
Lions 6,785 26,426 182 3.8
Cardinals 7,048 26,258 197 3.7

As you can see, it’s not worst. It’s second to worse. The Lions have a 168 yard advantage over the Arizona Cardinals. But wow, even in my wildest dreams, I didn’t think it would be this bad.

Let’s put it into perspective. In the last 18 years, the Lions have rushed for just 7,903 more yards than Emmitt Smith did in his 15-year career. Only the Browns and Buccaneers have scored less touchdowns on the ground. Perhaps the saddest fact of all is that the Texans have rushed for 1,137 more yards than the Lions have, and they’ve only been around since 2002, only 15 years.

Is there any positive to pull from these numbers? Not really, unless you count the fact that the Bears are miraculously only five spots ahead of the Lions and have scored the same amount of touchdowns. We own the Bears?

But Mike, what about the averages?

Don’t worry, we got you covered there too. Here’s the skinny on the averages: We here at Pride Of Detroit, pride ourselves on our mathematical ability. So we went to the nerd lab and did some simple division. here’s what we came away with.

NFL rushing stats per season average 1999-2016

Team Average Carries Average Yards Avg. Touchdowns
Team Average Carries Average Yards Avg. Touchdowns
Falcons 442.7 1,882 13.8
Cardinals 391.5 1,458 10.9
Ravens 463.3 1,884 12.2
Bengals 453.1 1,823 12.5
Browns 401 1,559 8.6
Bears 428.3 1,698 10.1
Panthers 451.6 1,885 13.8
Cowboys 446.6 1,923 12.6
Bills 448.8 1,897 12.3
Broncos 468.4 2,027 14.2
Texans 488.4 1,956 13.5
Jaguars 444.5 1,897 13.4
Cheifs 457.8 2,019 16.2
Rams 404.1 1,638 11.7
Dolphins 436.6 1,777 13.2
Vikings 441.5 2,032 15.3
Saints 422.1 1,733 13.8
Giants 442.1 1,824 13.4
Jets 465.1 1,929 12.2
Patriots 459.4 1,798 15.9
Steelers 473.7 1,940 13.7
Titans 451.7 1,868 13.6
Colts 418.6 1,638 13.3
Chargers 439.1 1758.0 14.4
Redskins 447.0 1878.8 12.7
Eagles 426.3 1921.8 13.9
Packers 424.7 1779.2 12.3
Buccaneers 425.9 1702.9 9.9
49ers 441.6 1932.3 12.7
Seahawks 454.3 1933.8 13.6
Lions 376.9 1,468 10.9

Now these numbers are a little clearer in their scope. The Lions still average 31st the amount of rushing yards per game, again Arizona somehow keeps the Lions from being last. What’s interesting is the lack of attempts. In fact, the Lions have the fewest rushing attempts of any team over the last 18 years.

One has to wonder if the Lions could have improved their predicament by attempting to run more often. One also has to wonder if the Lions have been self aware of their rushing woes all along and just didn’t bother. However, considering the Lions were just one of six teams to average less than 4.0 yards per carry over the past 18 years should tell you something.

So here’s the good news. the Lions came out slightly ahead of the Bears in average touchdowns per season (refer to Bears owner’s manual to see who owns them). The Lions also average more than the Browns and old NFC Central foe, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. These are good things. This next stat is not.

So at the end of the day this is the type of thing it comes down to: I’m not sure why the league refers to itself as a passing league anymore. It’s quite clear that a rushing attack is needed more than we think. In fact, let’s take a quick look back at how the winning and losing teams of the last 18 years ranked in rushing.

Super Bowl teams rushing rankings by yards

Super Bowl Winning team rushing rank Losing teams rushing rank
Super Bowl Winning team rushing rank Losing teams rushing rank
1999 5th 13th
2000 5th 11th
2001 13th 5th
2002 27th 18th
2003 27th 7th
2004 7th 24th
2005 5th 3rd
2006 18th 15th
2007 4th 13th
2008 23rd 32nd
2009 6th 32nd
2010 24th 11th
2011 32nd 20th
2012 11th 4th
2013 4th 15th
2014 18th 1st
2015 17th 2nd
2016 7th 5th

Fifteen of the last 36 teams to make it to the Super Bowl, ranked in the top ten in the league in rushing. But you can also see that just a mediocre rushing attack and a good quarterback can make all the difference, too. The Lions already have a great quarterback, imagine what they could do with a run game that ranked at least 15th. Imagine how different 2016 would have looked if they had that.

I’d like to give a special thanks to our fearless leader, Mr. Jeremy Reisman, for helping me find stats for this piece. Much appreciated sir. Here’s a song for you from all of us.

What do you think Lions fans? Be sure to leave your comments below or come yell at me on Twitter @POD_Payton.