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26 Dec 2012

Scramble for the Ball: Lead-Back Trends

by Tom Gower

In the preseason, I had a piece in ESPN: The Magazine's fantasy football issue on Arian Foster. In the piece, I tried to take a broad look at how the role of NFL alpha running backs had changed over five and ten-year increments. One of the things I noticed is that there were many more lead backs (defined simply as backs who led their team in carries) who had few receptions in the early 2000's. Back in 2001, you still had guys like Jerome Bettis and Ron Dayne; backs who were hardly ever thrown the ball. But there were also plenty of backs like Curtis Martin, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Priest Holmes who had a very large amount of both carries and receptions. Foster was one of those few backs who had continued to play both roles.

Of course, as anyone who's ever written a trend piece could guess, Foster, an excellent and highly prolific receiving back his first two years in the league, has not put up nearly the same receiving numbers this year. After 66 receptions in 2010 and 53 in 13 games last year, he only has 38 this year (through Week 16). Precisely why Foster's role in the passing game has declined is an issue I will not try to address here, but it's part of a general trend of the dual-threat lead back fading away. In 2001 and 2006, there were nine backs with at least 240 carries and 40 receptions. In 2011, there were only four. Foster still has a chance to join that club, as do some other backs, but through the end of the (sane) fantasy football season, only three backs have reached that threshold.

There seem to be two broad trends at play here. First, even though teams are passing a lot, all running backs are playing a smaller role in the passing game. Leaguewide, running backs in 2001 had 27 percent of receptions. 2006 was virtually unchanged at 26 percent. By 2011, they were at 23 percent. This year, running backs only have 21 percent of receptions. Expressed in percentages, these may not seem like big changes. But when you think about them in terms of the sheer number of completions in a season, the decline is roughly 600 catches across the league.

The decline is not due to the decreasing role of the lead back. Lead backs this year have about 42 percent of receptions. It was 41 percent in 2001, 44 percent in 2006, and 40 percent in 2011. These numbers seem more like normal year-to-year fluctuations than a trend. One thing we are seeing more teams do, though, is give a lot of carries to a back who is virtually a non-factor in the passing game. The Patriots are perhaps the foremost practitioners of this art, with both BenJarvus Green-Ellis last year and Stevan Ridley ending up with single-digit receptions while other backs like Danny Woodhead play a larger role in the passing game. (Ridley currently has six catches; he’s not getting to double-digits.) The Saints are another good example, as Mark Ingram leads them in carries for the second consecutive season at the same time Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas have them leading the league in running back receptions.

The other broad trend is, yes, the rise of running back by committee. Or at least the decline of the workhorse lead back. That trend, though, which went from 66 and 67 percent of the total running back carries in 2001 and 2006, respectively, to 57 percent last year, saw a slight rebound to 62 percent this season. Obviously Week 17 plays a role here, both with teams playing more backups (Foster sat last year, as the Texans were locked in) and with lead backs who played the majority of the season, like Ryan Mathews, unavailable due to injury. The bigger issue has been the decline in the number of backs who have an extremely large number of carries.

This, however, has changed this year. Gary Kubiak declared earlier this season he did not care if Foster ended up with 400 carries, and he leads the league with 335. Alfred Morris and Adrian Peterson have already gone over the 300 mark, though, with Doug Martin and Marshawn Lynch less than 10 carries away from doing so and Green-Ellis needing 22 carries to get there. Only Michael Turner and Maurice Jones-Drew got there last year. That is a change, but it's still a far cry from the ten backs that got there in 2001.

I should note that the decline in the number of rushes for the lead back has exactly the issue as the receptions. In terms of receptions, the lead back's decline is a result of the position's lack of work. It may be a passing league, but NFL running backs are getting basically the same number of carries they used to get. In 2001, teams averaged 377.9 running back carries. In 2011, that average was 378.0. If Week 17 continues the pace of the first sixteen weeks of 2012, teams will finish the season handing off to running backs about 375 times.

Okay, so what does this mean? I've been trying to figure that out since I ran the numbers this offseason. We have charting data back to 2006, and one thing I plan to try to look at this offseason is how running backs are being targeted now compared to then. Are there fewer dumpoffs, or are fewer dumpoffs going to running backs? The reception gap, such as it is, seems to have been taken up mostly by tight ends. Anecdotally, at least, some teams are using their tight ends as that safety valve option.

In fantasy football terms, the obvious stick is that it's very valuable to have one of those high-usage backs. Then again, my only experience is in non-action leagues, and if you don't have a high draft pick, you do not get a back like Foster or Ray Rice (the only 240-40 back in each of the past two seasons). One obvious way is to hit on one of the backs that unexpectedly got a consistent workload; the other 240-40 backs are rookies Doug Martin and Trent Richardson, who had ADP of 28 and 29 as of late August. Martin owners in particular seemed to do well. Is the idea that in fantasy football it may be worth taking a risk on backs that could have a very high workload in any way non-obvious, though?

Returning to the usage question, it seems like there would be a value in unpredictability. Until last week's column, Ingram had been sort of the favorite whipping boy of this column, and it seems odd the Saints would give him so many snaps when Thomas and Sproles are so much more diverse. Nevertheless, the Patriots are extremely efficient offensively, and even with this year's struggles the Saints aren't bad either; would either team automatically be more efficient giving more snaps to a back simply because he's better in the passing game? The answer may not be as obvious as you think. I admit my thinking is colored on this issue by another example of extreme one-dimensionality: the Titans threw something like 95 percent of the time on third-and-two or more last year, and were pretty good on third downs, especially third-and-long. It may not be that predictability is irrelevant so much as these basic run-pass trends do not mean that much in the context of the personnel, formation, and play-calling complexities NFL teams exhibit on their actual plays.

Loser League

Quarterback: Brandon Weeden did not finish the game, but he played long enough to avoid the penalty and end up with 5 points. Tied with him was Brady Quinn, in case you wondered why the Chiefs ran the ball almost twice as often as they passed it.

Running Back: It's an all-SEC running back leaderboard! BenJarvus Green-Ellis struggled to find running room against the Steelers defense and ended up with 1 point, while your low scorer this week was the man who may have been the first overall pick in your fantasy football draft, Arian Foster. He offset his 29 yards of offense with a lost fumble to gain 0 points before leaving with his injury.

Wide Receiver: Last in Quick Reads this week, but first in your Loser League heart was Danny Amendola with -1 point thanks to a fumble. Harry Douglas ended up with 0 points because with Julio Jones and Roddy White, who needs or wants a slot receiver?

Kicker: Shaun Suisham missed two field goals in Pittsburgh's loss to Cincinnati to offset his made extra point and field goal and finish with 0 points. Research project note to self: are teams more likely to lose if they miss short field goals like the 24-yarder Suisham put wide?

Awards

Keep Chopping Wood: Could there have been a more fitting likely end to Andy Reid's final home game in Philadelphia than a game-ending runoff after Nick Foles was flagged for throwing an illegal forward pass? In a goal-to-go situation where the Eagles could have forced overtime, no less!

Mike Martz Award: I can live with kicking an extra point down 21-12. Running a quarterback draw with slow-footed Matthew Stafford on third-and-goal from the four, then kicking a field goal from the 2 down 21-13? Why, Jim Schwartz, why?

Lock of the Week

Mike clinched his victory when I, for the second time, considered directly opposing him and went another direction, picking the Lions to stay within 4.5 points of the Falcons. I promise my ire at Schwartz is more Hoya pride than money-less gambling related.

Anyway, Week 17 seems like the trickiest game to pick, as effort levels can be very unpredictable. As of Tuesday evening, only six games had lines on Bovada, in any event. Attempting to pick a game that might mean something to both teams, my pickings are even more limited. I'll go with Baltimore +3 over Cincinnati, notwithstanding the Ravens' road struggles.

Posted by: Tom Gower on 26 Dec 2012

9 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2012, 8:06am by Jerry

Comments

1
by Anonymous574 (not verified) :: Wed, 12/26/2012 - 12:51pm

Don't let Brian Burke see this. He might melt down.

2
by Insancipitory :: Wed, 12/26/2012 - 1:12pm

Could it be the proliferation of 3-4 defenses is making short passing games that isolate taller faster TEs or smaller quicker WRs on LBs more attractive?

5
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 12/27/2012 - 12:13am

Possible. We don't have defensive personnel groupings dating back to 2006, so I don't think this is something I can test in the offseason using charting data. The basic question is an interesting one, though, namely whether a base 43 v 34 defense faces different pass targets, and that's something we can check.

3
by JonFrum :: Wed, 12/26/2012 - 3:45pm

Specialization. There are only so many starting quality runners who are also starting quality receivers. There are more who are going to be either one or the other. Why force the ball to a guy with less than top quality hands if you can bring in another RB who is a reliable receiver? If you don't need a slot receiver to be able to go deep, why worry about a lead running back who can't catch the ball? Do one thing very well.

4
by justanothersteve :: Wed, 12/26/2012 - 11:59pm

I think it also is due to so many lead backs being mediocre blockers at best. Pass plays often require the RB to block before going to their safety outlet spot. If they can't delay the pass rush long enough for the QB to extend the play, they're not much use in the passing game.

One other factor may be the trend for a TE to line up in the backfield. The Pats, Pack, and a few other teams frequently use a TE as both a backfield blocker and an alternate receiving threat. The Packers and Vikings both run formations with a WR in the backfield. (Cobb and Harvin usually.) As coordinators continue to be creative with formations and personnel to produce mismatches, I think we'll continue to see few lead backs as receivers.

6
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 12/27/2012 - 12:19am

Is there more specialization than there was 5 or 10 years ago? That was still the era of 53-man rosters and 45 active. Intuitively, I doubt the addition of the pure 46th man active slot would have this affect.

The tight ends thing is something I plan to try to check, and I may incorporate that into a broader look at third downs I hope to get to this offseason (after hoping to get to it in past offseasons and not doing so).

7
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 12/27/2012 - 12:20am

Multiple post.

8
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 12/27/2012 - 12:20am

Multiple post.

9
by Jerry :: Thu, 12/27/2012 - 8:06am

In theory, that deep a level of specialization should make things easier for defenses. If the slot receiver can't go deep, the defense can adjust accordingly. And the offensive coordinator who tries to outsmart the defense by running his inside-pounding back outside often ends up outsmarting himself.