There is a prevailing truth about the Washington Redskins that everyone mentions, but no one can explain: The Washington Redskins have no depth at offensive line.
Then there’s this:
For the past two preseasons (2008 and 2009) the Redskins backup running backs have performed exceptionally well.
How do these two truths coincide with one another? The backup offensive line is terrible, but the running backs it blocks for do exceptionally well?
How should credit be proportioned for the Redskins dominant second-team rushing attack?
One explanation is that the offensive line is good enough to overpower third- and fourth-string players, but would provide meager protection against first-team defenses.
Another explanation is that the Redskins backup running backs succeed despite poor blocking because of their superior talent.
There has to be some explanation why Marcus Mason, last year’s preseason rushing leader, was cut by the Redskins. There has to be a reason why it looks like the Redskins could carry only three running backs again this year and Mason, Dominique Dorsey, and Anthony Alridge might all be let go before Sept. 5.
The 2008 Preseason
About this time a year ago, Marcus Mason was dazzling D.C., a splash of color on the blank canvas of preseason football.
Mason did the impossible: He turned the third and fourth quarters of meaningless exhibitions into must see TV.
With his scintillating display of speed and elusiveness, the local kid from Georgetown Prep made a name for himself.
Mason led the 2008 preseason in rushing with 66 carries for 317 yards. Now, it should be noted that the Redskins played five preseason games, one more than most, but Mason still averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
But what do those yards per carry really tell us? What role did the second-team offensive line play in Marcus Mason becoming the breakout star of the 2008 preseason?
By going inside the numbers and examining Mason’s every carry, a story begins to emerge.
Marcus Mason should have made the Washington Redskins 2008 roster.
Statistical Explanations in italics: One metric we can use to evaluate Mason is his Success Rate (developed by Football Outsiders). Success Rate measures the consistency of a running back and how often they are able to put their team in a good position to keep making first downs.
In order to be considered a success, a running back will have to gain 40 percent of the needed yards on first down, 60 percent of the needed yards on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down (because if you don’t get it, the drive is over).
Out of Mason’s 66 carries, two (one rush for six yards and one rush for one yard) are not in the NFL’s official play-by-play records and cannot be judged. We’ll chalk it up to being the preseason for the scoring officials as well.
Out of the 64 remaining carries, two carries occurred extremely late in a blowout against Carolina (a 3rd-and-13 and 4th-and-8) which were unsuccessful. Since this was not a normal running situation (and a team would not run on fourth down in a regular season game), these carries are not counted either.
Out of his 62 eligible carries, Mason successfully ran 32 times, a Success Rate of 51.6 percent. The league average during the 2008 regular season was 46.8 percent, so Mason was almost five percent better than the league average.
Mason was even more successful on first down converting on 58.6 percent of his runs, and 51.7 percent on second down. What pulls down his average is that he wasn’t successful on any of his three carries on 3rd-and-1 or his lone 4th-and-1 attempt.
Since the Redskins wouldn’t use him as a short-yardage back anyway, his numbers should have looked even better to Head Coach Jim Zorn and the Redskins coaching staff.
It was not only surprising that the Redskins didn’t keep Mason on their 53-man roster, but it was the downright wrong decision.
Marcus Mason shares a lot of similarities to Ahmad Bradshaw of the New York Giants. Both are 5’9’’ and have similar ability to break off long runs with ease. Bradshaw is a little faster and Mason is a little bigger, but the Redskins could have used Mason the same way the Giants did Bradshaw—a missed opportunity.
The Offensive Line
We all know they’re important; we just have a hard time measuring their impact.
Most of the same cast and characters than appeared on the second-team offensive line in 2008 came back for 2009, so that makes the comparison between years a little easier. Chad Reinhart, Will Montgomery, and the recently cut Devin Clark all played a part on both lines.
One statistic like Success Rate doesn’t tell the whole story. We need multiple statistics to begin to understand what’s happening.
Football Outsiders introduced a statistic called Adjusted Line Yards, which shows how many yards the offensive line is responsible for on a given play. They are 120 percent responsible for lost yardage, because they got pushed back so far that the runner could not advance.
They are 100 percent responsible for 0-4 yards gained. They are only 50 percent responsible for 5-10 yards gained because the running back began to outrun the line and 11+ yards gained are all credited to the running back because he had moved beyond his blockers.
Using those measures, the Redskins second-team offensive line graded out poorly, averaging only 3.32 Adjusted Line Yards.
We can use this statistic in combination with the percentage of runs Mason had over 10 yards and the percentage of times he was stuffed at the line for no yards or negative yards.
Of his 66 carries, Mason had 11 carries go for 10+ yards, or 16.67 percent. He also had 11 carries, or 16.67 percent of his runs stuffed at the line.
So a third of the time, Mason was either breaking a run into the open field or not breaking the line of scrimmage.
A low Adjusted Line Yards combined with a high percentage of 10+ yard gains and stuffs at the line tell the story of highly inconsistent offensive line play and one that relies on the running back to manufacture a sustainable running attack.
In 2009, the line hasn’t been any better. When you combine the numbers for Mason, Dorsey, and Alridge, they are averaging 3.94 yards per carry. The three have been stuffed a whopping 22 percent of the time and have only had 10 percent of their runs go for 10+ yards.
When an offensive that struggles with consistency fails to have those huge runs, their yards per carry mark plummets. With six percent more runs being stuffed and six percent less going for big yardage, that's why the 2009 average is almost a full yard less than in 2008 (3.94 to 4.8).
The 2009 Preseason
Not only does Marcus Mason face the same challenges as he did in 2008, he is facing them with decreased playing time, fewer touches, and more competition.
In 2008, he averaged 14.8 touches (carries and receptions) per game. With Dominique Dorsey and Anthony Alridge also needing the ball, Mason has only averaged 10 touches a game in 2009.
In fairness, the fourth preseason game is where the backups play most of the game. If Mason were to get the 20 touches he did in the final preseason game last year, it would give him 12.5 touches per game in 2009.
In those fewer touches, Mason is producing at a lower rate that last year. He only has a 36 percent Success Rate in 2009 compared to 51.6 percent in 2008. But with such a small sample size, only 25 carries, there is only so much we can infer.
For Mason, the problem has always been that the Redskins have too many running backs. With Clinton Portis, Ladell Betts, and Rock Cartwright handling kickoffs, there’s no room for another runner who doesn’t contribute on special teams.
That’s why Mason was cut in 2008 (when he deserved to make the team) and why he will be cut again in 2009 (when he didn’t deserve to make the team).
If anyone is going to earn a spot against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night, it will be either Dominique Dorsey or Anthony Alridge because of their punt returning abilities.
There has to be one team in the NFL that needs Marcus Mason as a change-of-pace back similar to Ahmad Bradshaw.
Unfortunately, for the second straight year, that team is not the Washington Redskins.