Devin Singletary and the Running Back Carry Limit
NFL Week 14 - Alright, it's time we talk about the elephant in the room: the running back penalty. Running backs who don't run the ball eight times earn you the 15-point penalty. The point of that is to prevent you from just picking some benchwarmer and getting zero points for a zero-yard day. You know, benchwarmers such as, uh, Devin Singletary and Zack Moss.
The #Bills did not have one handoff to a running back in the first half against the #Buccaneers . It's the first time since 1991 that a #NFL team has played the entire 1st half and had NO rushes by a running back.
— Scott Pioli (@scottpioli51) December 12, 2021
And don't think this is a problem caused by Buffalo alone. All around the league, running backs are falling short on their carry totals.
James Robinson finished with 6 carries for 4 yards and zero receptions. He played 61% of the snaps.
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) December 12, 2021
SEA RBs yesterday:
* Rashaad Penny 35 snaps, 16 carries (14 routes)
* Alex Collins 14 snaps, 7 carries (6 routes)
* DeeJay Dallas 11 snaps, 2 carries (9 routes)
— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) December 13, 2021
GB RBs Week 14:
AJ Dillon: 54% snaps 📈
• 15 attempts - 0 Targets - 10 routes
Aaron Jones: 44% snaps
• 5 attempts - 3 Targets - 20 routes
— SAL Vetri (@SalVetriDFS) December 13, 2021
All season long, I have been saying that eventually, we'll have to sit down and talk about the running back carry requirement. So let's go ahead and do that.
All the other penalties seem to be doing what they're intended to do. There have been four starting quarterbacks to miss the 10-attempt threshold. Three were injured early on—Ryan Fitzpatrick, Lamar Jackson, and Tua Tagovailoa—and then you had Mac Jones in a windstorm, which is unfortunate but well within the tolerances of "sometimes weird things happen." It's a little harder to quantify how often receivers miss the three-target penalty, because determining who is a starter and who is a frequently-used reserve is a bit tricky, but there have been 122 instances of a starting receiver this season being held to two targets or fewer. That seems high, but it's actually only 12.9% of all starting receiving games this year; it's basically about 10 slot receivers a week, and usually not from teams you expect to be throwing the ball around a lot.
There have also been 122 cases of a starting running back being held under eight carries, but because teams use fewer running backs than receivers, that stands out a lot more. If you look just at that as a raw number, it ends up being about 24.9% of all starting running back games, and that's before taking into account platoons and timeshares. That's not entirely fair, however, because Stathead's "starting running back" database includes players such as C.J. Ham and Kyle Juszczyk, fullbacks who aren't going to be carrying a load. Filter out the fullbacks, and you're down to 75 failures in 427 games started, or 17.6%. That's certainly more reasonable, but you may well think that that's too high as well.
It hasn't always been like this, though, and it doesn't have to stay like this forever. The Laws of Loser League were not carved into stone tablets; I don't have the beard to be a prophet descending from Mount DVOA, anyway. All penalties used to be 15 points each. Quarterbacks were bumped to 18 and kickers lowered to 12 as scoring rates have changed over the past decade and change. The receiver limit was changed from two receptions to three targets. As the shape of the game changes, so do the rules. So maybe it makes sense to look back into history.
In 2003, when the Loser League was first debuted on Football Outsiders, the running back penalty was 10 carries. Filter out the fullbacks—a significantly more important effort in the era of Mike Alstott and Mack Strong—and you get 81 penalties in 520 starts, about 15.6%, or a little better than the state of the league today. Even then, that was a bit galling, and by the time the competition was opened to people not on staff, they dropped the penalty from 10 carries to eight carries—which, in 2005, meant that the penalty percentage fell from 19.7% to 16.3%. But now things are ticking up again. Platoons are becoming more common. Teams are going with one- and zero-running back sets more and more; we're seeing about two fewer "starting running backs" per week than we had when the rule change was initially made. The league is just running less, about two carries less per game than they did in 2003, which is relevant if you're talking about players right on the threshold of penalties.
So, what should we do about this? Nothing for this season, obviously; no one is changing rules midstream. But for future years, how should we handle the Running Back Crisis? The point of writing this article is to get some opinions from Readers Like You, so let's talk about some of the possible solutions!
… I didn't say they'd all be exciting solutions.
Perhaps a mountain is being made out of a molehill. We're talking less than a fifth of starting running backs hitting the penalty; it's not some crisis where you're forced to only look for the most run-heavy teams in a desperate attempt to get enough volume to avoid penalties. And there's an element of skill here as well—identifying which teams are more likely to have these null weeks is something that can separate good players from poor ones, and that might well be enticing!
|Running Back Starts Without 8 Carries|
"Hey, Buffalo doesn't like to run the ball" and "hey, Urban Meyer doesn't know what he's doing" are important things to recognize as a fantasy player, whether you're looking for high scores or Loser performances. It's not like every team is suddenly abandoning the run game entirely; it's a series of pockmarks throughout the league you're trying to avoid. The risk/reward between taking someone who's going to get 20 carries at 3.5 yards a pop versus someone you're hoping will get 10 carries and leave is part of the skill of the game, and being able to diagnose running back situations correctly is important.
At the same time … the Houston Texans have the worst rushing DVOA we have ever recorded. And yet, they have only had a league-low 13 times this season where a player avoided the Loser League penalty. A team being too bad to pick in Loser doesn't seem like it's a thing that should be, does it?
LOWER THE THRESHOLD
Maybe the solution is to drop the carry threshold once again. We went from 10 carries to eight once upon a time; there's nothing stopping us from going to six. That would drop the starting back penalty rate down to 9.4%, which if anything, might be too low. There does seem to be an identifiable class of player that frequently lives in the six- or seven-carry world too.
|Running Back Games With 6 or 7 Carries|
|Player||Team||6 or 7
Dropping the threshold to six helps two sorts of guys. On the one hand, you have your Mark Ingrams and Tony Pollards, guys who you can count on most of the time but occasionally get slammed with a penalty when the game script starts going against them. On the other, you have the second running back in committees—your Salvon Ahmeds, your J.D. McKissics, your Kenyan Drakes. These are players good enough to get a semi-regular role in an offense, but not good enough to take a starting job. And aren't replacement level players stuck in significant roles what the Loser League is all about?
And then there's Cordarrelle Patterson, which brings us to…
Maybe it's time we credit all that a running back does. You already get points for a running back's production in the passing game; maybe those reps should also count towards avoiding a penalty. Do we want to include "guy who catches a ton of screen passes and gets clobbered" among the ranks of top losers, or is that more a matter of poor offensive design and not the fault of the player themselves? It's an interesting question at least.
There are two ways that passes could be added. We could add all targets, like we do for wide receivers, or we could add only completed passes, and just say "X touches." They produce somewhat similar results.
Going to eight rushes + targets would add 112 new qualifying days, or eight per week. Going to, say, 10 rushes + targets would end up being a net gain of 32, or two or three per week; we'd lose some of those Chuba Hubbard or Latavius Murray "for the love of god, don't throw the ball to me" days.
|New RB Qualifiers (8 Carries + Targets)|
|Player||Team||New Quals||Old Quals|
Going to eight touches would add 91 new qualifying days, or six or seven per week. Going to 10 touches would only be a net gain of six qualifying days and likely be a waste of everyone's time.
|New RB Qualifiers (8 Touches)|
|Player||Team||New Quals||Old Quals|
Either way, you're talking about the same types of players. J.D. McKissic and Ty Johnson become playable; Devin Singletary and Darrel Williams become much safer; Cordarrelle Patterson and Aaron Jones get a game script safety net. If you're already losing points for receiving yards, maybe it doesn't make sense to risk also penalizing the player because they had the indecency to catch a screen pass rather than a pitch.
Of course, if we were to add passing stats to a running back's penalties, perhaps we should do the same to wide receivers. Deebo Samuel, Jalen Guyton, Rondale Moore, and Jalen Reagor each have two days with fewer than three targets but greater than three touches, and it would feel somewhat arbitrary if a Patterson got credit for both passes and handoffs while a Samuel did not.
I don't know what the answer is! This is where I'd write a neat little conclusion, but I don't have one. This was just a data-gathering exercise, and I'd love to hear what you guys think. While you're composing your thoughts, I'll get on with the week in review.
Week 14's Biggest Losers
Worst of the Worst
Trevor Lawrence (3) has made himself far too welcome here in the Worst of the Worst section. He's back after joining the four-interception club against the Titans. Lawrence is the third (drafted) rookie quarterback to have a four-interception day this season—and it gets to four if you count Mike White, who made his NFL debut this year. Even if you don't count White, it has been a hot minute since we had three rookies all have four-interception days; you have to go back to 2009 and Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford, Josh Freeman, and Keith Null to find a set as big. Jaguars fans are still hoping they have the Stafford in that grouping, because this is not all Lawrence's fault.
Shenault point shaving pic.twitter.com/oW0FCIe2QM
— Billy M (@BillyM_91) December 12, 2021
Other Loser Leaders
P.J. Walker (5) is back again, and with news coming out of Carolina that the Panthers are going to juggle quarterbacks, he may pop up quite frequently. Playing at the end of each half, Walker just barely got over the 10-attempt minimum, but one of those 12 passes was picked. XFL-level performance in an NFL world.
Taylor Heinicke (6) is the only other quarterback to hit single digits, fumbling and throwing an interception before he was forced out of the game.
Justin Fields (20) is one of the two starting rookies not to have a four-interception game; his biggest Loser moments have come from fumbles, sacks, and fumbling after sacks. He gets hit a lot, is what we're saying, and his injured ribs and non-throwing hand are reflections of that. But he fought through it against Green Bay, with 74 yards on the ground and a couple of long touchdowns, albeit short passes with plenty of YAC. Hey, it counts! And the race for second-best rookie quarterback after Mac Jones isn't exactly the world's toughest competition.
Worst of the Worst
Two players share the title this week with one point each. Jeremy McNichols had a light workload; eight carries for 16 yards, nearly all in garbage time when the starters got to rest against the Jaguars. Antonio Gibson came across his 1-point day with a little more vigor—10 carries, 36 yards, but also a fumble which saw him sent back to the bench.
Antonio Gibson killed any momentum Washington had here. Had the ball punched out as he dived forward for extra yards. Another fumble for Gibson and another turnover for Washington pic.twitter.com/A0uhP4PEEQ
— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) December 12, 2021
Other Loser Leaders
With Austin Ekeler going down, both Justin Jackson (3) and Joshua Kelly (3) split more workload than usual for the Chargers, cannibalizing each other's volume. Put them together, and you'd have seven points and wouldn't be mentioned.
Not a great day for big-name running backs: Nick Chubb (5), Ezekiel Elliott (5), and Josh Jacobs (4) all find themselves near the bottom of the table. Chubb might have been the worst; 59 yards isn't a terrible total, but taking 19 carries to get there isn't exactly ideal.
Jeff Wilson (5) rounds out the bottom of the list, for those of you playing Shanahan Running Back Roulette.
Rashaad Penny (25) earned a starting role after what was incorrectly described as a good day against the 49ers (10 carries, 35 yards). For once, however, Pete Carroll's hot-hand running back stratagem paid off, as Penny had 16 carries for 137 yards and a pair of scores, setting a new career high in, well, everything.
Worst of the Worst
Three Goose Eggers this week—Zay Jones, Darius Slayton, and Terry McLaurin. Jones had the most interesting day of the three—targeted seven times, catching five of them for 25 yards, but with a fumble which set his value back to zero.
.@_Bigmikee1 with his SECOND forced fumble
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 12, 2021
Other Loser Leaders
Your one-point squad: Darnell Mooney, Allen Robinson, Tavon Austin, Kenny Golladay, Jamison Crowder, Tyler Johnson, Rondale Moore, and DeAndre Carter. Golladay arguably was the worst of the bunch, with just two catches on eight targets.
Only three wide receivers actually beat the penalty this week. So I guess, almost by default, this goes to Ja'Marr Chase (19), who you could at least argue has had a problem with drops this year. That's something, I suppose! Don't take Ja'Marr Chase in Loser League, people.
Worst of the Worst
Brian Johnson (-5)'s back—no longer in black and gold, but in the burgundy of the Washington Football Team. He has been in this section before, and this week, it was a missed extra point that ends up topping the table.
Other Loser Leaders
Jason Myers (-3) continues his low-key stellar Loser season with not one, but two missed extra points. That squeaks him ahead of Daniel Carlson (-2), who only missed the one. Biffed extra points will kill you!
Chris Boswell (0) missed a field goal, while Matthew Wright (0) might as well not have bothered showing up for the scoreless Jaguars.
Dustin Hopkins (13) benefitted from yet another high-scoring Chargers game, with three field goals and four extra points to his name.
Week 14 Contest Results
Our winner this week can take the asterisk off.
BrettGissel won our Week 6 contest with a 19-point performance, but that was technically behind Aaron Schatz; we're not eligible for prizes here, but we are eligible for picking good (bad?) players. So Brett won the prize for the week, even though he technically came in second place.
Not this week, though! With just 12 points, Brett has won his first week outright. All but one of his starters are listed in the weekly recap above—Taylor Heinicke, Josh Jacobs, Zay Jones, Jamison Crowder, and Brian Johnson all had exceptionally low-scoring days. And when Devonta Freeman (6) is your high-water mark, well, you're going to win. A lot.
So that's a second FO shirt for Brett, as well 2,200 Madden Ultimate Team points! That's more than enough to add Jamison Crowder to the slot to commemorate your victory.
Your top five for Week 14:
1. BrettGissel (12)
2. Deacon Blues (14)
3. Semen's Shooters (17)
T4. Carolina (21)
T4. Imaloserbaby (21)
The Loser League: Classy.
The race for the top of the season-long standings technically has gotten wider, but only by one point. Octuplicate had a mediocre 42-point day, but the Mojo Momenteers, in second, had a 43-point day to keep things roughly at the status quo. Octuplicate struggled at running back, with D'Onta Foreman (11) finding the end zone and Ka'imi Fairbairn (7) actually scoring some points for once. But the Momenteers stumbled with Mike Glennon (17) and Alex Collins (16 thanks to the penalty) offsetting an Allen Robinson-Matthew Wright pairing. And so our race remains close.
But really, most of the top five had so-so days. AlecV, hanging on in third, had 43 points of his own thanks in large part to Collins. In The Hunt had 47 points with Glennon and Ty Johnson (20, including the penalty). And StMedard's 47-point day knocked him out of the top five, thanks to Collins and Kalif Raymond (9). Count in a few voices for altering the running back penalty there.
But one team who avoided most of this week's pitfalls was Deacon Blues, who shoots into the top five thanks to their 14-point day, headlined by Trevor Lawrence (3), Antonio Gibson (1), Darnell Mooney (1), and Matthew Wright (0). They have been floating near the top of the leaderboards for a while, but as the only top-level team to have a great day, they made up tons of ground. And just in time, with only a month to go!
As we begin to go down to the wire, we should look at the full top of the leaderboard.
Your top dozen to this point:
1. Octuplicate (444)
2. Mojo Momenteers (448)
3. AlecV (449)
4. Deacon Blues (459)
5. In The Hunt (473)
6. Davante's Inferno (476)
T7. Force Majeure Bitch (478)
T7. Awfinkelstein (478)
9. Stmedard (480)
T10. Covid Shutdown Corner (too soon?) (483)
T10. How to Lose a Game in 10 Plays (483)
T10. Aaron Schatz Has a Posse (483)
If I had to guess, I'd say our grand prize winner would be one of those 11 eligible teams. But we just saw Deacon Blues make up 30 points on the field, so all is not lost yet if you're lurking just outside the top 10! There are 118 teams with 200 points of the leader, and 42 within 100.
You can check your results and the rest of the Loserboard here!
Plays for Week 15
To start P.J. Walker or to not start P.J. Walker? The Panthers are not a good offense, as we discussed a few weeks ago, and they have produced multiple single-digit quarterback games, including a few from Walker. And with the Panthers rotating quarterbacks, that gives Walker a great chance to get into the game, do just enough to avoid the penalty, and produce terrible numbers. In Carolina's last two games, Walker has had 10 and 12 passing attempts, throwing an interception both times. If you could guarantee that he'd do that again against Buffalo, a brutally tough pass defense, then he's the best option available.
I can't do it. The risk of the penalty is too great for me; I'm sticking with Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson. But if you're feeling dangerous, using one of your slots on Walker is far from the world's worst strategy.
Other promising picks: Mike Glennon (v. DAL), Davis Mills (@JAX)
The Houston Texans still have the worst run DVOA we have ever measured. Rex Burkhead now has avoided the penalty in four straight weeks and is looking safer and safer each time. I have heard good things about this Burkheart guy, though, so watch out for potential replacements. On a more serious note, Burkhead is the undisputed lead guy as long as David Johnson is on the COVID list; we'll hope Johnson gets well soon.
Chuba Hubbard did score a touchdown, salvaging his day, but he also had a goal-line touchdown stolen from him by Cam Newton. As long as Newton is in the lineup, at least part of the time, Panthers' running back value should plummet. Hubbard's value wasn't high to begin with.
Sony Michel is bound to see his workrate drop any day now with Darrell Henderson just about to come back. For reals this time. They swear. I'm predicting Henderson gets a reduced workload against the Seahawks; enough to eat into Michel's value without actually knocking him below the penalty.
Other promising picks: Either Eagles Running Back (v. WAS); Michael Carter (@MIA)
Might as well go with a Panthers player at every position, with Robby Anderson rounding out the group. The Bills defense is the top fantasy defense in the league against wide receivers, holding them to 14.4 points per game, or 2.2 points better than anyone else. I do not expect Cam Newton or P.J. Walker to crack that code this week.
I'm sticking with Jamison Crowder. With Corey Davis and Elijah Moore both out, things could not have been better for Crowder to have a huge day. He had 19 yards. Killer.
With news that the Giants still are going to be going with backup passers, possibly to the end of the season, I was committed to taking at least one New York receiver in my lineup. I'm guessing that Sterling Shepard will be more likely to avoid the penalty than Kenny Golladay, so he's my man, but take your pick.
Other promising picks: Literally Any Jacksonville Receiver (@HOU)
The Jaguars still can't score points, and that's why I'm going with Matthew Wright until the cows come home, and then I will share Matthew Wright highlights with the cows.
I am fairly sure the AC/DC jokes about Brian Johnson have gotten boring, but I do have to keep making comments about him. After all, it's what I do for money, honey; it's how I rate them kicks.
Other promising picks: Ka'imi Fairbairn (@JAX), Jason Myers (@LAR)