Vick Ballard is a favorite of Indianapolis Colts fans.
Donald Brown is one of the least popular players in recent Colts' history.
Is there really a big difference between the two?
This week, Advanced Stat of the Week will look at running back success rate. Success rate is one of the most important ways to judge the true effectiveness of a runner. Consider the following hypothetical runners.
Runner A has one 80-yard carry and nine carries for no gain. His stats are 80 yards, 10.0 yards per carry.
Runner B has eight 10-yard carries. Two of his carries came on 3rd-and-15. His stats are 80 yards, 10.0 yards per carry.
Runner C has 20 carries, for four yards each, but all his carries came on 3rd-and-3 or less. His stats are 80 yards, 4.0 yards per carry.
The back who helped his team win was the back who recorded the fewest yards per carry but had the most successful runs.
Success rate illustrates that a runner's ability to move the chains is his most important quality. "Boom and Bust" backs can be exciting, but carries for negative yards are drive-killers. Long runs thrill fans, but consistent gains are more valuable.
The Football Outsiders calculate success rate roughly in terms of the percentage of yards gained by the runner on each down. On first down, a back needs 40 percent of the yards his team needs for a first down. On second down, that jumps to 50 percent. On third and fourth down, a run is only successful if the back gets 100 percent of the necessary yards.
In terms of success rate, a three-yard run on 1st-and-10 is not successful. A three-yard run on 2nd-and-5 is successful. An eight-yard run on 3rd-and-10 is not successful. This sliding scale helps account for meaningless yards that a back accrues during the course of the game. Seven-yard gains on a draw on 4th-and-20 don't often mean much in the course of a football game, and success rate shows us that. A running back should be looking for a success rate north of 50 percent.
Brown has a reputation as a boom and bust runner. That was well earned in 2011, but didn't apply as much to 2012.
Likewise, Ballard's squat frame has led many fans to consider him the superior inside runner.
When you look at both backs in 2012, they come out almost identical. Ballard had roughly twice the carries as Brown, but it's hard to see a significant difference between the two.
Ballard's success rate was a bit higher than Brown's, but not dramatically so. Brown's was actually way up over 2011. The difference between the two comes down to a handful of runs.
Likewise, Brown put up an insignificantly greater percentage of runs over 10 yards. The profile of the two backs as boom-and-bust versus chain-mover was simply not accurate.
Whatever the opinion of Brown, the same opinion can should be had of Ballard. They look different physically, and their skill sets seem different but their actual output is virtually indistinguishable.
Both players are serviceable, slightly below-average runners.
With improvements to the offensive line, the Colts may choose not to upgrade at running back in 2012. If he can stay healthy, Ballard can be a typical 1,000-yard back. That's not much of an accomplishment in today's NFL, but it fits his profile as around league average.
Over the long haul, however, the Colts will have to keep looking for the right mix of runners. With Brown coming up on the end of his contract, his injuries will likely end his time with the team.
Whether or not they see Ballard as the answer at running back, they'll need an influx of talent at the position. He'll need a complementary back, if nothing else.
It's not necessary to draft the next Adrian Peterson in Indianapolis, but their offense clearly needs a back capable of moving the chains more effectively than either Ballard or Brown.
In the long run, the answer at running back is likely not currently on the roster in Indianapolis.