Friday, July 11, 2008

Was Najeh Davenport Really the Problem?

The release of Najaeh Davenport, almost immediately, left us feeling rather ambivalent.

On the one hand there seems to be a general sense amongst fans of the Black & Gold that he was hardly an adequate replacement for the retired Jerome Bettis. We certainly shared that perception ~ when watching games it seemed that Mr. Davenport had very little success doing the "tough" running (i.e. short yardage, between the tackles) at which Mr. Bettis excelled.

On the other hand we had to question our own objectivity as well as that of all of you. Let's face it, Steelers fans are notoriously critical, not to mention impatient, and it just seemed as though a bit of investigating was in order. With that in mind we turned to the numbers because, as my man Nick Bakay always says, "they never lie."

For the purposes of assessing Mr. Davenport's performance as a replacement for Jerome Bettis we decided to look at his carries over the course of the 2007 regular season relative to yards needed for a first down (or touchdown). More specifically, we decided to look at his short yardage performance during the season. We defined "short yardage situation" as any play requiring three or fewer yards for a first down/touchdown. The reason for this is obvious: those are the exact situations in which opposing defenses would be deployed specifically to stop the run, thereby providing the maximum test of Mr. Davenport's individual skills (i.e. speed, strength, etc.). Using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet we recorded the down and distance required of each of these short yardage plays and the yardage actually gained. We then subtracted the actual yardage gained from the yardage required creating a spreadsheet in which a zero or negative number represents a successful play while a positive number represented a failure (e.g. if three yards was required for a first down but two yards was gained the net difference of +1 was the yardage short of that required). What we discovered only served to fuel our ambivalence.

During the 2007 regular season we counted thirty-four occasions on which the Steelers' offense had to gain three or fewer yards and called upon Mr. Davenport to rush the football in an attempt to gain those yards. The aggregate yardage required on those thirty-four plays was sixty-two yards, and the total yardage gained was 119. The net difference on the season for these plays was -57. Moreover, on those thirty-four plays Mr. Davenport managed to gain (or exceed) the required yardage more than 70% of the time. He may not have been all that the Steelers and their fans wanted, but it seems that Mr. Davenport was pretty good none-the-less.

Additionally, this focus on rushing ignores his significant contributions on special teams ~ he returned seven kicks in 2007 and was credited with nine special teams tackles (5 solo, 4 assists).

So, while some optimists see the drafting of Rashard Mendenhall and the signing of Mewelde Moore as part of the "solution" to the Steelers' 2007 rushing struggles, we believe that the issues facing Bruce Arians complex and unlikely to be resolved with the release of a multifaceted athlete who contributed well when given the opportunity.