Plays of the Day: Shaun Alexander, Part 1

No matter how you slice it, Shaun Alexander hasn't produced especially well this season. Whether it's due to his running style, his offensive line, or defensive game plans, the statistics Alexander has put up certainly have not done justice to his big contract.

As of Week 3 (Week 4 statistics haven't been published as of this time), Shaun Alexander ranks 20th in all three of Football Outsiders' advanced metrics (DVOA, DPAR, and Success Rate). But even the best statistics available don't tell us why Alexander's stats don't match up to his career norm. This week's Plays of the Day attempts to tell us if it's Shaun or his offensive line.

With the miracle of TiVo, I was able to review the first 23 carries (I decided after carry #23 that Seattle was in full -blown clock management mode, and the goal was not to fumble, instead of generating yards and points) against San Francisco. I looked for three things:

1.       Was the offensive line allowing penetration, stalemating, or creating a hole;
2.       Was Shaun Alexander running soft, medium, or hard; and
3.       Was Shaun Alexander falling down before the hit, being tackled with some effort, or running right into the defender with full force?

I also noted whether or not the run was a success, using the same method that Football Outsiders uses to create their Success Rate statistic. However, it's no secret that Shaun didn't produce, and the focus of this article is why his stats were bad. This was kept primarily to see if Shaun's dancing in the backfield lead to big gains or big losses.

It should be noted that this was most assuredly not one of Shaun Alexander's best games. Even in a down year, 21 carries for 78 yards (3.1 YPC) stands out as bad. It is my intent to see what is different with Shaun Alexander, should he bust out with a great performance, and compare the data to what I observed this week.

The "You Call That Blocking?" Dept.

While we haven't yet determined why Shaun Alexander is doing so poorly, I will come out and say right now with 100% certainty that his offensive line isn't pulling it's weight. Of the 18 runs where I felt I could accurately judge the offensive line (there were some plays where I didn't feel I could give a grade without possibly polluting the data) the blocking (for I included the fullback and TE's blocking as well) allowed penetration on five plays and didn't create any kind of hole on six other plays. Essentially, Alexander spent over half the time without a viable lane to run through.

For Alexander, getting even a small crease is essential. I noted, on a couple of his better runs, that Alexander slipped through a hole that looked too small even for the diminutive Warrick Dunn would have had trouble fitting through. In fact, the holes were so small in these cases that the reason Alexander turned them into a big gain had a lot to do with the defense also assuming he couldn't run out of there – when he found daylight, nobody was around him. However, when the offensive line is getting plugged over half the time – by a defense that definitely struggled against the run – a cutback runner isn't given the chance to be effective.

The "Dancing with The (fading) Stars" Dept.

To me, judging whether or not Shaun hit the hole hard is fascinating. Many members of the Seattle fan base feel that Shaun's "dancing" in the backfield makes him an inferior back than his numbers would indicate. In the interest of disclosure, I feel compelled to tell you that I don't agree with that sentiment. However, I did feel that it would be interesting to note how often Shaun truly danced. In a game where the San Francisco front seven dominated the line of scrimmage with such regularity, it is interesting to see what Alexander's reaction was: Did he try dancing around linebackers flying past him, or did he pick a direction and hope that whoever he was running behind performed their job?

I primarily looked at the speed of Alexander's feet and the number of cuts he made. If he made one slight cut and kept his feet moving, I scored it a "hard" run. If he made a more pronounced cut that detracted from his moment, or if his feet slowed a little waiting for something to open up in front of him, I scored it a "medium" run. If he slowed or stopped, or made several cuts behind the offensive line, I scored it a soft (or "dancing"). The difference between a hard and a medium is not nearly as pronounced as the difference between a medium and a soft, so there could be some "hards" that were closer to "mediums", with the opposite also being true.

The data suggests that Alexander was trying to get back to the line of scrimmage as fast as he could, normally. Only four times (out of 21 runs, there were two runs where I didn't feel I could chart the play effectively) did I note that Shaun was dancing in the backfield. All four of those attempts ended poorly for the Seahawks. On three of those four plays, the offensive line allowed penetration, which lends credence to the idea that Shaun dances only when the line can't open a hole for him.

The "Selective Memory" Dept.

To touch briefly on psychology, we, as humans, tend to remember the extraordinary. The run that we see hundreds of times a year fades out of memory, while the run that only occurs a few times a game stays inside our head. According to the data I collected, the only reason people are so focused on Shaun Alexander's patented "fall down before contact" method of running is because it happens so rarely, it sticks in our head.

While I do believe that five yards on first-and-10 is a good run no matter how you slice it, and thus believe Shaun has been a valuable back, I also fully admit that he has an usual aversion to contact. Yet, in watching this game, I only saw four runs where he dived before being tackled, or fell flat on his butt right as a linebacker closed in on him. It would appear that Shaun's "unaided fall" method of running, while comical at best, isn't the regular occurrence we make it out to be.

Although my general observations from years of watching Shaun Alexander would've led me to believe he dodges contact far more often than he embraces it, I actually noted more times when Alexander squared his shoulders and ran full into the opposing defender (5) than instances where he clearly gave up on the play to avoid contact (4). Alexander certainly won't be confused with Earl Campbell anytime soon, but this just shows that observations without data are incredibly unreliable.

Far more often than either (11 times) did Shaun absorb contact in what I would describe as a typical way for an NFL halfback. Again, the noteworthy runs stay in our heads - it's the commonplace ones that we forget, almost to the point where he believe the noteworthy occurs more than the commonplace runs.

Just for fun, on each of the runs I scored soft I also gave an explanation of what I felt he could've accomplished if he had tried to power through guys. Again, I wasn't going to assume that he was going to drag five defenders in his wake, but I tried to compare it to guys such as Edgerrin James, who were known for taking a hit.

What is really interesting is that in all four runs where he avoided the hit, he wasn't going anywhere. Twice he was going to be hit in the backfield by multiple defensive linesman, once it was 3rd and goal and even if he broke past the two defenders who tackled him he wasn't going to make it to the end zone, and once he dived in front of 3 oncoming defenders. Even an NFL running back with an ability to jack up defenders (which Shaun really isn't) wasn't going to do much in the situations Shaun registered an unassisted tackle against himself.

The "What Does all This Blathering Mean?" Dept.

At the end of Part 1, we are really no closer to pinpointing an exact cause of Shaun's running woes. The sample size is admittedly small and not as neutral (Week 4 was Shaun's worst week to date) as I'd like. Furthermore, we haven't even touched upon the influence of the defensive game plan on the running game, and whether or not they are targeting #37.

This data is far from conclusive, but it does seem to suggest that whatever Shaun's problems are, they are not due to "fat contract" syndrome. Shaun is running hard enough and with enough motivation to create big numbers, but his offensive line isn't helping and we don't know whether or not he's worn down.

Part 2, hopefully coming next week, will explore whether or not Shaun Alexander is the victim of extra defensive attention, and whether or not this changes to coincide with his improved 2nd half performance.


Kyle Rota writes for Seahawks.NET, and he can frequently be seen on our message boards under the handle "Rotak". Feel free to e-mail him here.


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