With all due respect to Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis, he is no Ray Rice. I don't care that both Greg Schiano and Dave Wannstedt compared Lewis to Rice. They are wrong, and here's why.
This argument has nothing to do with talent. I'm happy to concede that Lewis is comparable to Rice in that regard. He may be as talented, if not more. It also has nothing to do with his frame, or his specific skillset. Both seem well comparable to Rice, and I'm sure that Schiano and Wannstedt were making the comparison based on that criteria, or based on something along the lines of "both are ridiculous talented". Don't get me wrong, they are.
No, what I'm making is a statistical argument. Believe it or not, it's misleading to cite Lewis's raw statistics. On pace for around 2,000 yards, and over five yards a carry - sounds an awful lot like Rice, right? Again, not exactly.
The reason why they are not strictly comparable is that every yard is not created equal. Football Outsiders pioneered the research on this subject, so I'm just going to quote their FAQ here, and roughly leave it at that.
If their overall yards per carry are equal, a running back who consistently gains yardage on every play is more valuable than a boom-and-bust running back who is frequently stuffed at the line but occasionally breaks a long highlight-worthy run.
Our brethren at Baseball Prospectus believe that the most precious commodity in baseball is outs. Teams only get 27 of them per game, and you can't afford to give one up for very little return. So imagine if there was a new rule in baseball that gave a team a way to earn another three outs in the middle of the inning. That would be pretty useful, right?
That's the way football works. You may start a drive 80 yards away from scoring, but as long as you can earn 10 yards in four chances, you get another four chances. Long gains have plenty of value, but if those long gains are mixed with a lot of short gains, you are going to put the quarterback in a lot of difficult third-and-long situations. That means more punts and more giving the ball back to the other team rather than moving the chains and giving the offense four more plays to work with.
The running back who gains consistent yardage is also going to do a lot more for you late in the game, when the goal of running the ball is not just to gain yardage but to eat clock time. If you are a Chicago Bears fan watching your team with a late lead, you don't want to see three straight Matt Forte stuffs at the line followed by a punt. You want to see a game-icing first down.
Ray Rice has turned into a multi-faceted, Brian Westbrook-caliber talent in the NFL. However, at his core, he's a grinder who consistently moves the chains. One yard on 3rd and 10 is next to useless. One yard on 3rd and 1 gets you a first down, and is quite valuable. If Rice haunts Dave Wannstedt's dreams, it's likely because of his trademark 2006 game against the Panthers (in my book, one of the two best of his college career, along with the 2006 USF game). Well, take a look at the game log for that night. He had one single negative run on the entire night. One! That's unbelievable. By consistently running the ball down their throats, Rice and the offensive line managed to tire out the Pittsburgh defense, which directly led to a pair of big runs in the fourth quarter that iced the victory for Rutgers.
Going back to this year's Pittsburgh-Rutgers contest, Lewis had six negative runs on the night, in addition to the plays where he was stuffed for no gain. Those aren't always on the back, as I've tried to stress repeatedly here with my apologia of Martinek and Brooks. However, Pittsburgh has a pretty good OL. About as good as the one we had from 2005-2007. It's fair enough to place the blame on his feet, if he's going to get the credit for the rest of an admittedly spectacular peformance, as he well should.
I'm not going to sit here and claim to have seen every single Lewis snap on the year, because I haven't, although I've seen a couple Pitt games. I'm citing the statistical record, trusting what my eyes tell me, and frankly, what the reports were coming out of Pittsburgh's spring camp. Lewis was the absolute break out player, drawing comparisons to Brian Westbrook for his explosive, boom-or-bust style. That's what Lewis is. There's no shame in being Steve Slaton, or, dare I say it, Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson. Technically, none of those guys are chains-movers either. It really doesn't matter, although they'd be be twelves instead of elevens (on a scale from one to ten) if they were.
Am I hair-splitting here because I'm sick of hearing about Dion Lewis? Most likely. He's from Albany people! Albany! How can Rutgers take criticism for not recruiting Lewis, when he barely spent any time in New Jersey at all? Hardly anyone else thought that he'd make it either. Given his low profile, it was easy to whiff on that one. Give Dave Wannstedt and staff all the credit in the world for finding him. And give Syraucse, Upstate New York's team, the scorn for missing out on their local star. Not Rutgers.
The irony is, if Rutgers did miss out on a top freshman last year, the guy all our fans thought would end up coming back to haunt us was Elizabeth tailback Ray Graham, who also went to Pittsburgh. From what I've read, he's looked pretty good himself in practice. If he had the opportunity to enroll early, we could very well be talking about Graham at the moment instead of Lewis. I still remember my observations from watching Graham and Rutgers signee De'Antwan Williams square off at the NJ/NE Bowl last June at Rutgers Stadium. Both were, undoubtedly, the two best players on the field. I thought that Williams had a tad more burst in his step, but honestly, I preferred Graham.
Williams was too quick to run outside and towards the sidelines, like that eternal coward Franco Harris. That's not a knock towards Rocket though, who did look great, and did show a lot of power inside. Graham just had that tenacious, fearless inside running style. It made my jaw drop. I thought that I was watching the splitting image of Rice incarnate. God damn did I wish that Rutgers had Ray Graham, and I still do to this day. Lewis was never on my radar, so I don't feel the corresponding regret in missing out on him. And honestly, I still think that Rocket will be pretty good once he gets the finer intracacies of the position down.
Here's the scary part though, and where people may very well call me crazy. Would Pitt honestly be better off giving Graham more touches, if not starting him? It'd be overkill on the season, where Lewis is looking like a Heisman candidate, and Pitt's depth chart looks absolutely loaded. However, all I'm ultimately saying is this simple argument. Given two backs of equal or comparable talent, I'd give more touches to the chains-mover over the boom-or-bust guy.
Graham hasn't gotten all that much of an opportunity to this point, but has made the most of his touches, including a big kick return against Rutgers. Unfortunately, he may not get much of a chance to make his case this season, barring injury, with Lewis breaking out as an entrenched starter. When things are going well, coaches are hesitant to rock the boat; that's especially true when it comes to a fairly conservative one like Wannstedt. Pitt has a deep, deep roster, bolstered by years of solid recruiting finally coming to the forefront when it comes to results on the field. I don't know very much about the top guys out of WPIAL. It's probably the case that the Panthers have many other instances where an understudy could be nearly as good as a starter, but haven't yet received their time in the sun. Hey, after all, it worked out well for Joe Flacco in the end.