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Running Back by Committee


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Everything Old is New Again

As I struggle with draft strategies for the upcoming season, the running back position is becoming maddeningly muddled. Much of the blame seems to fall on that seemingly new phenomenon: the running back by committee (RBBC). Team after team is switching from one so-called “bell cow” running back to two, three or even four, running backs among whom the workload - and fantasy football points - get divided.

The reality is that professional football coaches get paid to win games. They don’t get paid to reward fantasy football team owners, much to the chagrin of those of us fantasy football team owners. Consequently, they will use whatever means are best to achieve victory on the field. To preserve their running backs, they will often rotate them in and out of games, based on the “hot hand” principle or based on situational formulas dependent on field position, down, yardage remaining, or some other combination of factors.

I can guarantee that Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, has little sympathy for those fantasy owners of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, or Joseph Addai. Neither does Mike Shanahan, head coach of the Washington Redskins, have sympathy for those owners of Roy Helu, Tim Hightower, or Evan Royster. In fact, I saw one case last season in which Shanahan publicly declared - minutes before game time - that one particular back would start the upcoming game; yet, come game time, another back got the nod. Good luck dealing with that situation when setting your lineup. To start any one of these notable committee backs, you’ll have to outguess Belichick and Shanahan, and realize you might be wrong.

Who the heck came up with this idea? I mean, how are we to cope with this frustrating new phenomenon? What happened to the good old days?   Then, a thought came to me. As a diehard Miami Dolphins fan, I know about Larry Csonka. But I also know about Jim Kiick. And I know about Mercury Morris. Honestly, I didn’t remember Hubert Ginn or Charlie Leigh. But, it turns out running backs were sharing carries, even back in the 1970s.

So, I decided to look more closely into the 1972 Miami Dolphins situation, and compare it to the 2011 New York Giants, which split carries between Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Of course, as Bradshaw was the lead back in 2011, we say that Jacobs poached carries from Bradshaw. However, Jacobs was there first, so truly it was Bradshaw who poached touches and touchdowns from Jacobs. No matter.  The fact remains that two or more backs split carries, catches and touchdowns. So I did a little digging, and what I learned surprised me.

Let’s first look at that old school team of hard knocks, the Miami Dolphins of yore. In game after game, coach Don Shula used the running back by committee approach. In terms of touchdowns, over a 14-game season, Morris led the pack with 12 rushing touchdowns. He also gained 1,000 yards. Csonka gained more yards, 1,117, but half the touchdowns, at only six. Kiick, in his own right, gained 521 yards on the ground, along with five touchdowns. While Morris reeled in passes for an additional 168 yards, Csonka got a mere 48 yards, and Kiick pulled in 147 yards and a touchdown through the air. Ginn and Leigh were barely of any consequence, gaining only 244 yards and one touchdown between them. Thanks to fantasyfootballchallenge.com for compiling these statistics.

When we break down the statistics by game, we see a few games in the season in which fantasy owners of Csonka, Kiick or Morris would have hit paydirt. For example, on Sept. 24, Csonka would have scored 14.3 fantasy points, Kiick would have scored 17.9, and Morris would have scored 16.25, based on typical fantasy scoring. However, games like that were few and far between. More often, one or at most two of the backs scored decent points, while one or two backs struck out. An example of this type of game was played on Nov. 5, where Csonka scored 7.2, Kiick brought in 6.3, and Morris rocked 23.9 fantasy points. Unless an owner started Morris, he would have been severely punished for starting either of the other two running backs.

Nov. 12 and Nov. 19 were even worse for owners of Csonka and Kiick in comparison with those owners of Morris. Owners of Csonka would have gotten 9.2 and 7.6, while owners of Kiick would have gotten only 1.6 and 0.6. However, Morris owners would have cleaned up with totals of 28.75 and 22.95 on Nov. 12 and Nov. 19, 1972, respectively.

Of course, on Oct. 8, 1972, Kiick came into his own by scoring 18.1 fantasy points, leaving Csonka at 10.2 and Morris at 0.6 far behind. Frustrating, right? And familiar, too.

Let’s next examine the 2011 New York Giants, and their running back situation with Bradshaw and Jacobs. During the season, Bradshaw gained 659 yards on the ground, and 267 yards through the air, on 171 touches and 34 catches. Bradshaw also scored nine rushing and two receiving touchdowns. Jacobs gained 571 yards on the ground on 152 touches, scoring seven touchdowns, and 128 yards through the air on 15 catches, but only scored one touchdown through the air. This battle was frustrating for fantasy owners due to the nearly even splits. While you couldn’t go too wrong starting either Bradshaw or Jacobs, it is indisputable that Jacobs cut into Bradshaw’s production, and vice versa.

So, as fantasy football addicts, what can we do? I think a new reality is coming, one in which you’re lucky to get two-thirds or one-half of the team’s carries out of any one of your running backs. You’ll need to scale back your expectations a bit. The result is that the value of running backs will decrease somewhat as you get past those few three-down guys that carry a game-long, season-making heavy workload. And, since the number of these solo backs is shrinking, the value of the ones left is understandably high.

I think that, as those “bell cow” guys get injured or retire (accelerated in part by their own overuse), the committee approach is the wave of the future. Running backs might last longer and suffer fewer injuries accordingly, which does have some value to fantasy owners. Can you imagine a season in which you can start a running back and ride him the entire season without missing any games due to injury?

With the reemergence of the RBBC, wide receivers and tight ends will gain in relative value, and running backs will fall back to the mean. Instead of 20 or 25 touches and two or three touchdowns per game, look for 15 touches and one touchdown and be happy with solid, if uninspiring, production. It worked in the past. It will be used more in the future. And we all will just have to learn to live with it. One possible solution is to try to draft and start one team’s running back roster, each of the main two or even three running backs participating in the committee. That way you capture all - or nearly so - of one team’s rushing yards and touchdowns. And, it prevents you from being forced to guess which of two or three running backs to start each week. You do lose the possibility of that golden outperformance provided by guessing to start the right running back in a committee, of course, for the uninspiring guarantee of solid, steady points. And, after all, that’s what makes the game.