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Due Diligence on the Runningback By Committee

Running backs are the core of your fantasy team, and a shift towards running committees in the NFL would turn Fantasy Football on its head. The gap between the best runners and the rest would grow even wider, and your playoff brackets could be set before the second round of your draft. Thankfully,

as we’ve seen, this isn’t happening.

During a recent podcast on Draft Strategies, featuring our very own

Tony Holm and hosted by friend of the site

Greg Kellogg, one of the guests mentioned that the Running Back by Committee (RBBC) approach was growing in numbers. This is the opposite of what I found, so I along with a regular reader and Shark Tank resident, gridguru, pounced. Since then,

Greg and I agreed to do some more research and share our findings.

(Greg) I have often chided the mainstream media for not doing their jobs. Too many stories are poorly researched yet they influence millions of people toward one belief or another. Amazing we still have jungles with all the deforestation that has been going on since the 50’s. I’m still looking for the glacial coverage of

North America that was predicted by what is now the Global Warming crowd in the 70’s.

So I agreed to look into the numbers surrounding the Running Back by Committee argument. After all, if I expect professional journalists to do their job, then I should do my own due diligence before propagating a theory.

Guess what. I was wrong. And so are you if you think the use of a committee approach is growing.

We both looked at how teams have shared carries over the years. We agreed to start in 1978 to avoid schedule and merger problems. Injuries can make backfields look like committees in the numbers, so I focused on teams where the leading rusher played at least twelve games, which is usually about 90% of them.

Starting backs are getting a larger share than ever. In the late 80s, the team leaders took an average of 46% of their team’s carries. Since 2003, they’ve taken an average of 58% of their team’s carries. These carries have to come from somewhere, and it’s not the backup, who has remained steady at about 21%.

The endangered species here are the fullback and the deep bench guys. The third back on the depth chart has seen his carries fall from as high as 15% in the 80s to as low as 8% in this decade. A fourth rusher, who used to take as much as 10% of the carries, has become all but extinct. We’re not seeing the backup more, we’re just seeing these other guys less.

This is consistent with better training and medical treatment that you see reflected in all competitive sports. Athletes whose “training” leads to Congressional hearings aside, better physical conditioning has allowed teams to keep their best players on the field longer and stronger.

Despite this conditioning, bad things can still happen to good running backs. I also found that the 2004, 2005, and 2007 seasons were three of the four worst seasons ever for missed games by lead runners. This could be guys on the other side of the ball hitting the hole harder too, maybe the surfaces are to blame or maybe this is just bad luck. Whatever it is, this is something to watch.

 

The last interesting fact I found is lead backs with more experience tend to get larger shares than backs with less experience. This seems to account for about half of the thinking behind running game plans. Meanwhile, since 2003-04, the number of starters with fewer than two or even three years of experience has doubled. This is a decades-old cycle, but the fantasy football craze is relatively new, and this may be the first time many are witnessing this cycle for themselves.

Greg explains what he found:

Based on the percentage of carries to pass attempts (I did not try to account for passing plays that resulted in runs) league-wide, the first two years of our study were indicative of a run-first philosophy.

In 1978, NFL teams ran the ball 57.61% of the time. In 1979 the tables began turning but the NFL still ran the ball 53.92% of the time. What this means is that teams averaged over 150 more carries than passes in 1978 and nearly 80 more per team in 1979.

But from 1980 through 1988 the league was essentially balanced with teams averaging a high of 51.21% rush to pass attempts in 1980 and a low of 48.28% in 1986. From 1989 through 1993 the league began transitioning to a pass-first philosophy. From 1993 through last year the NFL average of runs to pass had a high of 46.87% in 2004 and a low of low of 44.15% in 1995.

Since the 2000 season, the average number of runs per team per season has ranged between a high of 453.4 in 2003 and a low of 437.1 (last year). Last year’s drop-off can be attributed to injuries suffered by some of the top running backs in the league. You just aren’t going to run

Brian Leonard as often as you would

Steven Jackson. And with

Michael Vick in the slammer,

Atlanta’s carries dropped from 537 in 2006 to 388 last year – a drop of 149 carries for one team.

But back to the point of this article. If more teams are using a committee approach then one statistic that should stand out is a reduction in the number of backs with 300 or more carries and an increase in those with 175 to 299 carries.

The numbers just don’t show that. While the number of carries at the top will vary greatly from year to year, one thing is very clear. Since the advent of the pass-first philosophy, the number of backs topping 250 carries per season has been remarkably consistent.

In 1993, eight backs had 250 or more carries. From 1995 through 2006, a span of12 years, the number of backs at that level (250+ carries) was between 15 and 19 all but once. Thirteen backs topped 250 carries in 1996. Last year only 12 backs topped 250 carries.

I believe the drop last year was more due to injuries to players like

Adrian Peterson (238 carries), Jackson (237),

Carnell Williams (

Ernest Graham got 222 carries),

Shaun Alexander (207) and

Brandon Jacobs (202).

Every year there are injuries but last season was particularly hard on running backs or it would have produced 15-19 running backs with over 250 carries.

By the way, looking back to 1978 when the league ran the ball over 55% of the time and teams averaged about 115 more carries per team than they did last year shows no indication of a committee approach. No one would suggest that teams used a committee approach in 1978 yet only eight players topped 250 carries in that season. The 1979 season only had nine such players. So, despite passing first and having the total number of carries per team drop by over 100 carries per team per year, more players are now topping 250 carries in a season.

But before you jump up and say that proves teams are using a committee … step back a bit. If teams were averaging 550 to 600 carries per team I could go with that but teams are averaging 450 carries or less. And some of those are fullback, third-down back and quarterback carries.

Yes, some teams do run the ball 500+ times. Four teams did last year. But some also average fewer than 400 carries in a season (seven teams in 2007). And you

Frank Gore fans –

Detroit had a league-worst 324 carries in 2007. Think about that when drafting

Gore this year, because he has the same offensive coordinator,

Mike Martz, that

Detroit had last year.

But the point about teams in a committee approach is usually used to promote the need to grab one of the “stud” running backs early in your draft. The truth is there are as many, or more, running backs that are going to nab 250+ carries in a season as there has been at any point in history.

In fact, it might be time to start thinking about grabbing a standout wide receiver instead of those second-tier running backs late in the first round. And I never thought I would be saying that.

But before I recommend that drastic a change I think I need to do my due diligence and see if they are as rare as I think they are.

We’re seeing a change in the guard, and lots of starters have missed time lately, but teams still want the best guy on the field, not a committee. Starter carry loads have risen and steadied to about 60%, and things will probably stay that way until a league expansion into

Europe drives it down or when the genetically engineered LT 3.1 comes along to drive it up. That’s right, 3.1 – you should never buy the first release.

The NFL is always changing, but before you change your strategy, do your due diligence, and make sure the stats agree with you. And definitely screen your talk shows for geeky know-it-alls.

As always, stop into the

Shark Tank at FantasySharks.com for more independent analysis, or drop me a line in the

Articles Discussion forum.

Greg Kellogg is a fantasy sportswriter and host of the

Fantasy Sports Group Podcast.

About Fantasy Sharks

FantasySharks.com began in 2003, disseminating fantasy football content on the web for free. It is, or has been, home to some of the most talented and best known fantasy writers on the planet. Owned and operated by Tony Holm (5 time Fantasy Sports Writer Association Hall-of-Fame nominee,) Tony started writing fantasy content in 1993 for the only three fantasy football web sites in existence at the time.