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Don't Running Backs Matter?

Great post here by Michael Lopez, who does advanced stats for the NFL, looking at the NGS expected rush yards metric. Can we show that there actually is a difference between different running backs? The answer seems to be yes. First of all, a high performance in expected rush yards over average does a good job of predicting future workload: coaches do seem to want to give the ball to backs who perform better even after accounting for scheme and blocking. Second, random selections of carries still show correlation in expected rush yards over average.

Of course, the phrase "running backs don't matter" is a bit more complex than that. They may matter, but what if they don't matter much? The amount that running backs matter (compared to players at other positions) is also connected to a) the value of rushing as opposed to passing; b) the difference between a good running back and an average one, compared to other positions; and c) how often the most expensive running backs (in terms of draft capital or salary) turn out to actually be the better running backs, compared to other positions.

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16 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2020, 11:15pm

1 I'd add that the amount that…

I'd add that the amount that running backs matter is also connected to the quality of the offensive line they run behind. Two running backs who may appear to be of similar quality when running behind a good line might appear to be of very different quality when running behind a bad one.

3 Passing and running success…

Passing and running success are not entirely independent functions. Both benefit from the same factors, and success in one tends to promote success in the other (option teams are often wildly efficient at passing, just in tiny sample-sizes).

2 I think this was expected

And generally, yes, higher drafted (paid) RBs are usually better. With that table going

1-2, 2-35, 2-45, 2-43, 2-48 vs 6-188, 4-104, 5-150, UDFA, 2-53

So as whole you do get more of what you pay for but the leader in ANY/RA this year by a RB (min 45 att) is Devontae Booker (4-136) and we see the Panthers replace CMC (1-8) w/street FA Mike Davis (4-126) and be fine. The Jags replace Fournette (1-4) w/UDFA rookie and...not be much different offensively (Fournette .05 ANY/RA better than him this year behind TBs better OL). Etc, etc. 

But as stated, the difference isnt usually that much where a team should pay much more. Feels like topic is done. They need to move on to special teams (big believer in never drafting em but after that rookie contract though, I'm not so sure).

5 Topic is not necessarily…

Topic is not necessarily done.

I think the Browns' rushing game struggles in Chubb's absence the last few weeks are pretty overwhelming evidence against conventional wisdom. 

I know that CMC's extension is already starting to look like yet another disaster, and yet another data point in favor of conventional wisdom (even Peterson turned out to be an albatross contract,) but something feels different with Chubb, at least if they can sign a heavily non-guaranteed/incentive-based extension. Difference is probably because his game is more in-space driven than most backs.

I'm not sure if the Browns analytics-heavy brass is thinking the same way; native son Kareem Hunt may only have gotten the extension he did because his off-field issues made him a bargain. 

6 Idk if he'd accept that

With the way the market is going, he shouldn't (spotrac market value is at $12m AAV). Which is the point of the argument. Pay that for 4 years or roll with Hunts $6m and...whoever else you find? Yeah Chubb is better but...we always play this game, or rather teams always think their guy is different when in reality...nope. 

Also were the Browns struggling? Or did their schedule just get harder? Seems like it could be a Panthers situation where their lead (better) back goes out but they realize instead of running, they rely on the more efficient passing game (and targets not aimed at less efficient RBs)? Kinda forced to look elsewhere and that elsewhere is better overall.

7 I guess my thinking is that…

I guess my thinking is that if non-QBs as a whole, and RBs in particular were more interchangeable, we would've seen much more of a market correction as such.

But evidently NFL player agents and teams alike agree with me about marginal value. 

The logical conclusion of the various forms of the "non-QBs don't matter" argument is that it's most ideal to pull 52 randoms off the street to support a QB you spend 90+% of your cap on...which of course is silly.

Anyway, I think it's most likely that going forward the Browns get out from OBJ's and maybe Jarvis' contract before anyone else. They might let Denzel Ward walk also given he has some substantial injury history.  I do expect Baker to get a big albeit not record-setting deal...and other major deals are coming down the pike such as probably Wyatt Teller...

8 Hmm I'm not sure.

That is a silly idea but the gap between QB value and the rest is pretty massive unlike the other positions were they're all bunched up but I still think you can come out with a clear conclusion. Or at least one that puts RB near the bottom.

I asked this in another thread (since they were announced on the same day iirc), for example, what's a better value in terms of general roster composition (ignoring other players at their same position and what they're making), LT Dion Dawkins 4 year extension for $58.3m or TE Travis Kelces 4 year extension for $57.25m? Both extensions, both 4 years, both on the same day, both on the same side of the ball, etc. And I would say pretty firmly Kelces is better because he plays a more valuable position (he's lines up out wide a lot more than he does inline blocking and even IF he doesn't, he's (slightly) cheaper). But conventional (casual imo) wisdom will go to the grave that LT (really blindside, but that can change whenever, hello Tua) is the 2nd most important position when there's evidence that OL is a weak link group and you might not really need the super expensive (good) guys, just decent, average ones across the board. 

But getting back on track, it'll be interesting how the rest of the season plays out without Odell. Would be pretty bold of em to get rid of their top 2 WRs (and overall pass catchers) and top CB just so they can pay a G, (another) RB and maybe mediocre QB. Probably not something I'd recommend. 

10 Well, maybe only one of them…

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

Well, maybe only one of them at WR.

Remember that they did develop Teller to a much higher level than he was at. If they need money, Bitonio might end up being the odd one out down the line as he approaches his back nine.

I've always been an OBJ skeptic, and elite WR skeptic in general (Josh Gordon never helped us win much of anything,) and the lack of chemistry he has had with Baker isn't exactly something I'd just brush aside.  Only reason I thought it wouls work particularly well this time was OBJ'S history with Jarvis. 

To me, the clock control, low turnover risk, and ability to comfortably manage down and distance as well as open up play-action through a run game makes me put RB over WR, at least in the bad-weather and domeless AFC North...although longevity is certainly a factor.

11 Guards are guards. Gordon was great tho

didnt have a QB which is by far the most important part. Dude still put up >1600 yards with Jason freakin Campbell. Dont know if you really want to blame him. Nor OBJ who had four >1000 yard seasons with overrated Eli. And the Giants chose a RB (Saquon) over him and that's working out...pretty poorly. 

The leading AFC North team that is also domeless is undefeated because they let Bell go and continue to invest in WRs like Claypool despite having Juju, Johnson, etc.

Pay em at your own risk. 


12 "Gordon was great tho …

"Gordon was great tho ...didnt have a QB which is by far the most important part."

Except that the team did a lot better with JAGs at WR instead of Gordon in 2014, in games where Hoyer was the QB in both cases.  Forcing passes to Gordon, much as it seems like with OBJ - both need the ball too much in order to be happy, it seems - didn't work.

Likewise, Gordon's monster games in 2013 were actually usually the Browns' worst games, although this was largely because many were Weeden games where the defenses used soft zones.

Eli led a 7-9 team before OBJ, and the first two seasons, investing in the WR at the #10 pick improved them all the way to...oh, wait, they were 6-10 both of those seasons.

Obviously there are a lot of analytics methods to evaluate building a team, but I guess my philosophy would be a bit closer to the Seahawks/Ravens "going against the grain by running when everyone is passing more and more" school of thought.

14 I mean...

A lot changed over that one year (notably the guy that has taken two teams to the SB since, in Kyle Shanny) and yeah Hoyer was an upgrade. Which is the point, minimal gains in QB performance does a lot more than any other position, especially RB. Also wouldnt say "forcing" Gordon when he was averaging TEN POINT FOUR yards a target is really a bad thing. And now you're argument is encroaching on character which only leads down a bad speculation path, on both of em.

Idk what you mean by the Browns worst games coming on Gordons monster days. As if that's...his fault? And it'd be better if they threw to...Greg Little...for the sake of...throwing it around?

You're straight up using position winz now?

So you're route is...getting an elite QB...the guy that can pass...and you're still missing the struggles the Ravens are having...w/o a real WR1? And the Ravens are buoyed by Lamars running, not their RBs. Also the Seahawks aren't a running team anymore. Idk what to tell ya if those are the teams you want to model when the Chiefs exist and there's tons of data out there showing how little RBs impact the game, and not just 2/32 teams. Pound it for 4 yards instead of passing it for 7 if you insist. 

15 It looks like we are going…

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

It looks like we are going in circles here, but no, with QB I was generally comparing Hoyer games to Hoyer games, so "Hoyer was an upgrade. Which is the point, minimal gains in QB performance does a lot more than any other position" isn't the argument.

Shanny is a good coach, but the 4th-quarter collapses even beyond the 28-3 memes can't be ignored.

I guess I'm not sure why there hasn't already been a "market correction" flattening the second-contract salaries for RBs, if both good and bad teams consider them such an unimportant position.

That'll be all I wrote on this for now.

16 Comparing Hoyer games to Hoyer games?

Huh? The argument is QB>>>>>>>>rest and that rest consists of WR>RB, unless it's 1940. 

He's a good coach. Memes cant be ignored as if they're indicative of...Gordon...not being...good? I dont understand that argument. Yeah, they choked what does that have to do with Gordon? As if those choke jobs make Kyle S. overall bad and not the reason for the turn around, along better QB play, etc? You really think Gordon going off a year prior was the reason they weren't as good? That throwing it others like Greg Little was the solution?

I never said market correction but all teams do dumb things. That shouldnt come as too much of a surprise. Just because everyone excessively drinks alcohol doesn't mean it's good for you lol. 

Definitely going in circles. Did you watch the Ravens game today? Titans 8.3 ypa> Ravens 6.4 ypa> Titans 5.1 ypc> Ravens 3.9 ypc


4 What genius decided to change the DVOA webpages midseason?

You do this in the offseason!  The WORST thing an site can do it change data midseason! 


I left nfl.com, espn.com for these reasons.  Anyone want to teach me how to login via power query before downloading?

Frustrated beyond belief!

9 Last Night

I would say that the Seahawks without both Carson and Hyde shows that RBs matter when viewed with their performance last night with Hyde back in the lineup. Quantifying it I will leave to the author above or to the FO guys, but qualitatively there was a noticeable difference.

13 Sure, as you go down the…

In reply to by LyleNM

Sure, as you go down the depth chart the difference becomes more and more noticeable. But how much is a starting RB worth if a big difference isn't noticeable until you hit the 4th or 5th guy on the depth chart (I don't know the Seahawks that well, but I imagine Rashard Penny is not a bad player?)