On The Numbers: Sproles shows off versatility in Eagles win vs. Patriots
Welcome to Week 13 of ‘On the Numbers,’ a weekly column that mines for statistical oddities and numerical fun facts from around the NFL.
On a week that saw an offensive lineman (Kendall Lamm), defensive lineman (Tyson Alualu) and quarterback (Tom Brady) all catch a pass, along with eight missed extra points and the first one ever run back for a two-point conversion, there was plenty to track across the league.
The Eagles found a variety of ways to score against the Patriots Sunday, while pulling off the most stunning upset of Week 13 and one of the more shocking results of the season. Philadelphia tallied 35 points, thanks to five touchdowns. Sam Bradford threw for a pair, and the Eagles also scored on a blocked punt, a punt return and a pick-six.
That’s an unlikely trifecta of return touchdowns to pull off in one game, made even stranger by the fact that it’s happened three times in NFL history, and all three times by the Eagles. The Eagles accomplished the same feat last season against the 49ers, in a game that also featured a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown, a punt return touchdown from Darren Sproles and an interception returned for a touchdown by Malcolm Jenkins.
There are many fun facts that could be gleaned from this game, but the player of the game was Sproles, who not only scored on the 83-yard punt return, but also played a vital role in the Eagles’ offense. The running back led the Eagles in carries (15), rushing yards (66) and receptions (four, for 34 yards, which was just two yards shy of Jordan Matthews’s team-high 36).
For Sproles it was the seventh punt return touchdown of his career, moving him past notable players like Deion Sanders and Dante Hall. He now has half as many punt return touchdowns as Devin Hester, which is actually a pretty exclusive club.
|PLAYER||CAREER||PUNT RETURN TDs|
Several players on this list have more total return touchdowns than Sproles, thanks to their contributions as kickoff returners. Sproles has ‘only’ two. But part of what has made him so valuable in his career has been his versatility and ability to help the offense and special teams in different ways.
Trivia Question: Sproles is one of seven players since 2000 to score as a runner, receiver, punt returner and kick returner. How many of the other six can you name?
Sproles’s touchdown Sunday was the 55th of his career. He has 28 receiving, 18 rushing, seven returning punts and two returning kickoffs. Nobody has equaled all of those numbers across the board, although that is cherry-picking some convenient endpoints.
Focusing exclusively on total touchdowns, 55 moves Sproles into the Top 200 in NFL history. He is tied with Eric Metcalf at the top of that list of players above with at least six punt return touchdowns.
|RANK||PLAYER||RUSH TD||REC TD||KR TD||PR TD||TOTAL TD|
With four touchdowns this season, he’s also passed players like Wes Welker (51), Charlie Garner (51), Lynn Swann (53), Dave Casper (53), Dallas Clark (53) and— at least for now—Jimmy Graham (53) in career touchdowns.
Throw in seven more touchdowns in 10 career playoff games, and Sproles’s resume makes him one of the most versatile touchdown scorers of his generation. His talents were on full display Sunday, as one of the focal points of the offense and a key sparkplug on special teams.
Feats of Strength
A.J. Green caught five passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in the Bengals’ 37–3 dismantling of the Browns. In the process, he crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the fifth straight year, joining Randy Moss as just the second player to rack up 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first five seasons.
Being alone on a list with Randy Moss is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but that might actually sell Green’s accomplishment short. Gaining 1,000 yards in five straight seasons at any point in a career is an achievement. He’s already matched the longest such streaks put together by guys like Michael Irvin, Larry Fitzgerald and Terrell Owens.
Only 14 players have reached 1,000 yards in six straight seasons, though Calvin Johnson is just 35 yards away from joining that group. Below is that list of very familiar looking names:
Green is still less than halfway to Jerry Rice’s record of 11 straight 1,000-yard seasons (which, it should be noted, started immediately after gaining 927 yards on just 49 balls as a rookie), but his early-career success has him poised to continue setting new benchmarks and breaking more meaningful record.
For his career, Green already has 5,911 yards receiving. He’s already sixth on the list of most receiving yards through the first five seasons of an AFL or NFL career, with four more games to keep climbing.
This year Green has averaged 86.4 yards per game. If he can pick up the pace and add 454 yards in the Bengals’ final four games, he’d pass Jerry Rice’s production for the first five years of their respective careers.
In the long run
The Titans may be 3–9, but most onlookers seem to agree that Marcus Mariota has had an impressive rookie season. But the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, who ran for 15 touchdowns last season at Oregon, has done it almost entirely with his arm in the NFL. Going into Sunday he had just 22 rushes for 137 rushing yards and a touchdown.
On Sunday he made the kind of play that can single-handedly alter his season stat line—breaking free of the rush, weaving past a couple defenders and zooming 87 yards into the end zone.
A touchdown of that length is pretty rare. According to the Touchdown Finder at Pro Football Reference, Mariota’s was the 47th touchdown run of at least 87 yards since 1948. Absent from that list, are some of the most prolific runners the league has ever seen. Here are some of the guys widely considered among the best running backs in NFL history, along with the longest touchdown rushes of their careers.
|RUNNING BACK||CAREER LONG TD RUN|
Sure, it’s a bit fluky, dependent on the drive’s starting field position, and far from a way to judge a player’s entire career. But it’s still pretty amazing to think that none of those guys ever ran one into the end zone on a longer play than rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Back to those 47 touchdowns that were 87 yards or longer. The next obvious question is: How many of them came from quarterbacks?
Let’s stick to the Super Bowl era, when positional information is a little more reliable. (For example: Pro Football Reference lists the Cleveland Rams’ Parker Hall as a punter/tailback in 1939, but he also threw a league-leading 208 passing attempts. So let’s just not go there.) Since 1967, only two quarterbacks have run for longer touchdowns than Mariota’s on Sunday: Colin Kaepernick’s 90-yard run last season and Terrelle Pryor’s 93-yard run in 2013.
OK but you don’t expect a quarterback to rush for a touchdown that long. How about passing touchdowns? Passing plays of at least 87 yards are much more common than rushing touchdowns of that length. Over that same time span that’s seen 47 rushing touchdowns there have been 164 passing connections.
Most of the all-time elite quarterbacks have added their name to that list, but one man who hasn’t is Dan Marino. That’s not a knock on Marino. He just happens to be third on the all-time touchdown passing list with 420 of them, and he never even threw for a touchdown longer than the one Mariota ran in on Sunday. That just goes to show you what a rare event that was. Mariota might play another 15+ seasons and he may never come close to doing that again.
Put it on the board
One more note from that Titans-Jaguars game. Did it surprise you to see the Titans and Jaguars combine for 81 points in a 42–39 game? Well it should have. For starters, the total for this game at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook closed at 43.5 points and Tennessee almost covered that themselves.
The two AFC South rivals (and before that AFC Central) have played each other twice a season since the Jaguars came into existence in 1995—now 43 times, including the AFC Championship Game in January 2000.
The rivalry has fallen off a bit since that peak, back when Y2K was a thing and Steve McNair would battle Mark Brunell. And while high-scoring games aren’t always indicative of a pair of good teams, it is telling that they haven’t found much success getting on the scoreboard when they get together.
What’s amazing isn’t that Sunday’s match-up set a record for most points in a Titans-Jaguars game, but that it bested the previous mark by 20 points! The previous high was 61, way back in Week 2 of 1996 when the Houston Oilers beat the Jags 34–27. The record since the Oilers/Titans moved to Tennessee was 59 in a 31–28 Jaguars win in Week 11 of 2005.
Since that 1995 season, the NFL had seen 571 games with more than 61 points and 40 games with 81 or more, but never in a Jaguars-Titans game.
But Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota both look like good young quarterbacks and there’s a chance we’ll see added offense and excitement in this rivalry for years to come.
Great moments in Vegas
Thursday Night Football is typically old news by Monday, but it would be unfair to select Week 13’s great moment in Vegas without looking back at the Aaron Rodgers to Richard Rodgers 61-yard Hail Mary. As you’re surely aware by now, the touchdown on an untimed down gave the Packers a 27–23 win over the Lions.
The amazing thing from a gambling standpoint is that not only did the Hail Mary help Green Bay cover -2.5, where the line closed at the Westgate SuperBook, but it also pushed the total to 50. The total closed at 46.5 at the Westgate, so the move from 44 points before the Hail Mary to 50 afterwards swung at bet with a point to spare on either side.
For anyone who bet on the Packers-Lions game, whether it was the spread or the total, both bets changed on the final play of the game after the clock had already ticked down to zero. All winners became losers and vice versa. Sincere apologies if you watched the whole game thinking that your Lions +2.5 and Under 46.5 tickets would hold up.
Trivia Answer: Sproles is one of seven players since 2000 to score as a runner, receiver, punt returner and kick returner. The other six are Steve Smith Sr., Devin Hester, Ted Ginn Jr., Josh Cribbs, Tim Dwight and Brian Mitchell.