The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had plenty of issues on offense last season, with injuries taking away two top skill position players in Mike Williams and Doug Martin, the oft discussed Josh Freeman saga, and even the injuries to the tight ends and Mike James that took away more and more depth from the offense.
But through all of the chaos and frustration, hope flowed from the fanbase thanks to positive performances from Mike James and Bobby Rainey in place of Doug Martin as the starting tailback in Tampa. This led many fans and writers (myself included, I'll admit) to consider Martin tradable and not essential to the Buccaneers success.
I mean, after all, the rushing offense was better without him on the field, right?
To the numbers!
To answer that, we'll consult the numbers. And not just yardage numbers, or point scoring numbers, because those don't paint the whole picture. Rushing for 15 yards on 3rd and 30 helps no one, while a two-yard gain on fourth and one is a game-saver. Those are the situations that prompted numberFire to come up with Net Expected Points data (click the link to learn more).
Net Expected Points, or NEP, attempts to give a value to everything done on a football field in terms of the amount of expected points gained or lost. So if being 1st and 10 at the 20 is worth one point value, and being 2nd and 8 at the 22 is worth another, the difference between those two values is what the players involved in that play would have gained as NEP.
The general idea behind NEP is to find out the real impact a player has on his team's production, and how efficiently that player makes positive plays for his team. This data is then compiled at the team level, and that shows us how the Buccaneers did as a team, when compared to a theoretical average.
And the numbers are fairly convincing. During the six games in which Doug Martin was healthy, the Buccaneers Adjusted Rushing NEP (adjusted means the figures take into account the strength of the opponent played) was better than the 10 games following, when Mike James and Bobby Rainey were carrying the load. Not by any huge margin, but better all the same.
And what makes this improvement even more staggering is that the passing offense during Martin's games was SIGNIFICANTLY worse than for James and Rainey. On a per-game basis, the passing offense for games in which Martin was the lead back was more than 6 Net Expected Points worse per game than the passing offense in games for James and Rainey.
It's all in the passing game
In other words, the passing game for Martin was actively taking away a touchdown per game as compared to the passing offense for James and Rainey.
So with no passing game to respect (or even think twice about), Doug Martin and the Buccaneer offense were able to produce on the ground and put the Bucs in better scoring situations.
The link between the passing game and running game is clear when it comes to the Buccaneers' lesser backs. Mike James enjoyed playing alongside Mike Glennon at his best, as the Bucs' passing game was much better during James' games than it was for even Bobby Rainey's.
As a result, the rushing offense was better for James' games than it was for Rainey's games, thanks in part to the improved passing game, and the stiff competition James faced (The Panthers and Seahawks, namely).
So over a 16 game season, how would the offense have fared with Doug Martin, versus without Doug Martin? Let's extrapolate the NEP numbers and find out.
These numbers are the NEP data for the "with Doug Martin" offense and "without Doug Martin" offense when multiplied over a full 16-game season. As you can see, the Martin rushing offense is a touchdown better in terms of Rushing Net Expected Points, while it's more than 100 points worse in Passing NEP.
To give the numbers some perspective, the Martin rushing offense would have finished four spots higher in the final rankings than the Not Martin rushing offense, while the passing offense with Martin healthy would have been the worst in the league... by a wide margin. The passing game was a disaster, yet Martin was still able to outshine his teammates by leading a more productive rushing attack.
Doug Martin is still the best
Doug Martin was partially responsible for the woes in the passing game, as he was pretty much useless as a receiver in 2013, but clearly he wasn't the main issue with that aspect of the team. So the fact that he was able to lead a more productive rushing offense with a dumpster fire of a passing game shows that he's more than poised to return to his rookie ways in 2014.
He might not touch the ball 400 times, and he might not set records and be the greatest running back of all time, but Doug Martin is by far the best back in Tampa, and a new offense with a hopefully not quite as disastrous passing game will help him shine as he did in 2012.
(Full disclosure: I also write for numberFire. Thanks for the crew for allowing me to use their data. You can find more numberFire content here.)