Beyond the stats: CJ’s 2012 season vs. 2013

CJ Spiller didn’t have the 2013 season he, or the Bills, expected him to have. He went from 6.01 yards per rushing attempt in 2012 to 4.62 in 2013. Despite the disappointing average, Spiller was still an above average running back with at least 100 attempts. He was actually tenth.

In 2012, Spiller thrived on big gains. 45% of this attempts for five or more yards. The NFL average in 2012 was gaining five or more yards on a rushing attempt 34% of the time. Either Spiller was an absolutely elite talent who was going to become one of the best running backs in history or was due to regress a bit.

Since the merger, just 24 running backs have average 5.5 or more yards per attempt in a single season (minimum 100 attempts). Just four of those players did it more than once (none more than two times). Those repeat 5.5 yard per attempt rushers were Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, Barry Sanders, and O.J. Simpson.

Maybe Spiller can be the fifth player to average 5.5 yards per attempt or more twice. To do that, he’ll have to get back to what he did so well in 2012: big gains and almost no losses on runs to the outside. The table below compares Spiller’s last two seasons, notice how his drop in productivity to the outside, especially the left (the difference is calculated as 2012 – 2013, meaning a negative number is an improvement over 2012).

When going around either end in 2012, Spiller gained five or more yards 59% of the time and lost yardage just 7% of the time. That’s insane. The NFL average for rushes around the ends gained five or more yards 41% of the time and lost yardage on 15% of attempts.

Spiller regressed in both areas in 2013. His five or more yard gain rate decreased by 25% and his loss rate increased by 31%. He had a loss on more attempts around an end than he gained five or more yards. The rushes around the ends in 2012 and 2013 are compared in the table below.

So why wasn’t Spiller able to have the same success around the ends this past season? The injured ankle might have impacted his results. Spiller wasn’t able to get around to the edge on his outside runs often this season, which led to an increase in tackles by defensive linemen. Spiller was tackled by a defensive linemen just 12% of the time on runs around an end in 2012. That percentage increased to 32% in 2013.

I wondered if Spiller’s utilization as a runner changed from season to season. In 2012 and 2013, Spiller’s runs from shotgun or when the quarterback was under center the same proportion of attempts. But the direction of runs varied a bit. 37% of Spiller’s runs out of shotgun in 2012 were up the middle, while he ran up the middle out of shotgun 27% of the time in 2013. The middle was Spiller’s second best run direction out of shotgun in both seasons (7.3 and 6.7 yards per attempt in 2012 and 2013).

Spiller had the best yards per attempt average when running around the right end out of shotgun in 2012 and 2013. But Spiller had the fewest number of attempts around the right end out of shotgun (just thirteen attempts in two seasons). Spiller never lost yardage in those thirteen attempts. Interestingly enough, Spiller did the worst when running around the left end (17.6% loss rate in two seasons).

2012 was an amazing season for Spiller. He was amazing at breaking big runs in 2012 and had an uncanny ability to prevent losses. More than anything else, Spiller had healthy legs in 2012, which allowed him to gain the edge before a linebacker could force him back inside for a lineman to make the tackle.

Was 2012 a fluke or can Spiller replicate his elite production? He has the ability but he’ll need to stay healthy. Maybe the Bills can also run him around the right out of shotgun more often too. We’ll look into Spiller’s pass utilization later.