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4 things that "Running backs don't matter" ignored in 2021
Seaside Joe 1177: What's between the cherries that Analytics leaves behind every time they go picking?
I’ll stop short of saying something as egomaniacal and untrue as “I helped start the running backs don’t matter movement,” but I want to assure everyone who reads this of one thing before all other things: I was there.
I know the arguments.
Beginning in 2011 with my weekly Field Gulls series “Seahawks Advanced Stats” after every game, I wanted to do everything in my power to provide resources and guidance that pushed fans towards a deeper understanding of the game; not because I personally understood all of it (I fully admit, I’m not the math guy you’re looking for) but only because I believed we could do better than “passing yards” and such to comprehend value in the game of football.
So my job was to serve more as a mediator between the people who created the numbers at websites like FootballOutsiders and Seahawks fans who wanted to know what this “analytics movement” was all about. I was as much of an observer as anyone else, only going one step further by providing links and screenshots.
At a certain point in the 2010s, it became apparent that as teams leaned heavier on the passing game, day two running backs and day one running backs may have been running neck-and-neck in value. Throw in a handful of unfortunate injury situations and the relatively low cost of veteran free agent running backs (plus I kept pounding home that Marshawn Lynch only cost the Seahawks a couple of mid-round picks) and the argument that “running backs don’t matter” sure seemed alluring and analytic-y.
Then in 2018, I asked Ben Baldwin to write an article about how “Running backs don’t matter” and the beast was born.
I know the arguments.
I know them so well that once I felt that the running backs don’t matter narrative could potentially have gone “over the line,” I decided to try something that I rarely see out of the very people who are supposed to be scientific in their analysis of football: I attempted to prove the opposite.
For me, there’s a super simple concept in life that I hope we can all agree on: There’s nothing worse than being HACK.
The dictionary definition for this usage of “hack” is: A writer or journalist producing dull, unoriginal work OR a person who does dull routine work.
The internet version of “hack” is Twitter. All of Twitter. Memes. Replying “wut” to a tweet that you disagree with, for example. “Oh you have nothing original to say, so you just say ‘wut’ because you noticed that 27 people will mindlessly hit “like” when you do?”
At this point, nothing about analytics is as hack as the argument against running backs. It was fun 10 years ago. It was maybe still interesting four years ago, when I assigned that article. The NFL has responded by not drafting running backs nearly as early as they used to. The moment is over. I will continue to be bored by “running backs don’t matter” until one of two things happens:
For once, analytics moves on to a different position to obsess over
Someone else in analytics attempts to argue that running backs do matter
I’m not the math guy or the graphs guy. That’s not me. But I will take my place as the intermediary between you and an argument that is not hack, even if it is as old as the game of football itself:
Running backs… they do matter.
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Rashaad Penny had the same offensive line, same offensive system as the RBs before him
Chris Carson’s best game of 2021 was in Week 1 against the Colts (16 carries, 91 yards, three catches, 26 yards) and he lost a fumble that day. Carson had 13 carries for 31 yards against the Titans in Week 2, 13 carries for 30 yards against the 49ers in Week 4, and 12 carries for 80 yards against the Vikings in Week 3. Carson finished with 54 carries for 232 yards, 4.3 YPC, three touchdowns, and one fumble.
At FootballOutsiders, Carson didn’t qualify for the leaderboards because he didn’t hit 100 carries, but on the 20-99 list he ranked below J.D. McKissic in every key category.
Alex Collins took over for Carson midway through Week 4, then started six of the next seven games. He had 20 carries for 101 yards against the Steelers in Week 6, but didn’t gain more than 47 rushing yards in any other game.
Collins ranked 29th in DYAR, 38th in YAR, 24th in DVOA, and he finished the season with 108 carries for 411 yards, 3.81 YPC, and one fumble.
DeeJay Dallas played too sparingly to have much of anything meaningful to say about him, other than “DeeJay Dallas played too sparingly…” Through two seasons and multiple opportunities to “plug and play the game’s easiest position to reload”, somehow Dallas has never been given that shot. Why not? The reason may be as simple as, “running back is not as simple as some are saying it is.”
Dallas had 33 carries for 138 yards, 4.2 YPC, two touchdowns, and one fumble last season.
Travis Homer had a 73-yard touchdown run against the 49ers in Week 13. Apart from the play, Homer had 20 carries for 104 yards on the season.
Given staggered opportunities when he was healthy in 2021, Rashaad Penny had 27 carries for 78 yards prior to his Week 14 start against the Houston Texans. That’s a terrible 2.9 yards per carry and Penny hadn’t inspired much confidence prior to his final month of the season.
But he finished the year with a five-game stretch: 92 carries, 671 yards, 7.3 yards per carry, six touchdowns, no fumbles.
By comparison, Chris Carson had 141 carries for 681 yards and five touchdowns over 12 games in 2020 behind much of the same offensive line and a healthy Russell Wilson at quarterback, with a 12-4 Seahawks team.
Using analytics’ own Rushing Yards Over Expectation metric, Penny outpaced Seattle’s other running backs by miles:
Penny was 181% better than average, compared to Carson (-10%), Dallas (-14%), and Collins (-52%).
Adrian Peterson really doesn’t deserve mention, but in case anyone wants to see it, AD had 11 carries for 16 yards.
In actuality, I don’t believe that RYOE has much merit. It’s just another made-up stat by the made-up stat patrol, something to satisfy an answer to those who’ve questioned the value of analytics when it’s so obvious that running backs do often create their own yards. But since you asked: Yes, Rashaad Penny was hugely better in RYOE than his teammates.
And the other running backs in the NFL, albeit on a much smaller sample size than you’d hope for.
If you’re saying that running backs don’t matter, then clearly you are saying that Chris Carson, DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer, and Adrian Peterson could have all rushed for 671 yards over the final five games, right? Well damn, wish someone would have told them sooner!
Jonathan Taylor was a legitimate MVP candidate
Have you ever noticed that “analytics” tends to point its nose towards people or strategies that are already considered to be smart, then finds way to confirm their narratives, rather than the other way around? A good example is Colts general manager Chris Ballard.
People were effusive in their praise for Ballard after his 2018 draft class (Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, Braden Smith, Nyheim Hines) hit fairly hard as rookies and Indianapolis went from 4-12 the previous year to 10-6 in Ballard and Frank Reich’s initial season.
If a figure is perceived to be smart, analytics wants to jump all over that person or thing on social media so that they can reap the benefits of association.
If a figure is perceived to be stupid or bad, then you play it the opposite way. “Ha ha, Pete Carroll the fool has punted on fourth-and-12 again!” “Pete ran the ball on first down???? What a goofy charlatan!”
Uh oh. What are they gonna do about Chris Ballard now?
From 2019-2020, the Colts made zero first round picks and five second round picks. Of those five second rounders, three have been really disappointing (CB Rock Ya-Sin, LB Ben Banogu, WR Parris Campbell), one has been okay (WR Michael Pittman), and only the running back has been FANTASTIC.
Only the running back. The one who went 41st overall, just like Ken Walker III.
But wait, Chris Ballard is the GM who you must praise to be smart. And yet, the GM you must praise… not only does he think teams can draft running backs in that range, but he also has found that drafting receivers, cornerbacks, and linebackers in that range can turn out to be a negative.
Jonathan Taylor rushed 232 times for 1,169 yards (5 YPC) and 11 TD as a rookie.
Taylor rushed 332 times for 1,811 yards (5.5 YPC) and 18 TD in 2021. He also caught 40 passes for 360 yards, led the NFL in touchdowns, finished only behind Cooper Kupp in Offensive Player of the Year voting, and was first in RYOE, a good margin ahead of Nick Chubb (once the 35th pick in the draft).
The top three running backs in Yards After Contact/Attempt in 2021 were Penny (3.1 YAC/A), Chubb (3.0), and Taylor (2.8).
The top eight running backs in broken tackles were Javonte Williams (early second round pick), Najee Harris (first round pick), Taylor, Chubb, Alvin Kamara (third round), Melvin Gordon (first), Josh Jacobs (first), and Joe Mixon (early second).
How can running backs matter if they don’t matter? It’s a question as old as the Bible.
Taylor nearly won MVP last season and it wasn’t simply because of “old voters”. Because in spite of Ballard’s reputation as a wizard, the truth is that the Colts haven’t had many good draft picks since 2018. Taylor is one of the few. Indianapolis even traded a first round pick (!) for Carson Wentz, who was the quarterback that Taylor had to carry to a 9-8 record last season.
And Pittman was the only player on the entire team who had more than 400 receiving yards; Taylor was third on the team in receiving yards, ranking just behind Zach Pascal.
I need someone in analytics to show me with a diagram how the Colts, with a band-aid at left tackle named Eric Fisher, would have posted an above .500 record with Nyheim Hines, Marlon Mack, and Deon Jackson as the top three running backs.
Taylor led the NFL with 75 carries, 364 rushing yards, and 22 first downs in the fourth quarter. Reich wasn’t asking Wentz to save the day. He was asking Taylor. In Seattle, Penny’s fourth quarter stats: 25 carries, 210 yards, 8.4 YPC, two touchdowns, and six first downs.
I don’t know how anyone grew up a football fan without having at least a couple of running backs there among their favorite players in the league. No matter the era, there must be some running backs who made you become a football fan. Unfortunately, it seems like there are people who could be so afraid of being perceived as “dumb online” that they will actively root against running backs having success and getting credit for it.
It’s okay to like running backs and to root for them to get credit for it. You can do that at Seaside Joe any time you’d like, nobody will call you dumb!
Aaron Rodgers plays in a balanced offense with two STARTING running backs
The Packers went 13-4 and secured the NFC’s number one seed last season, leading to Aaron Rodgers’ second MVP award in as many years. Undeniably, Rodgers being Rodgers is the number one reason that Green Bay can have success year after year.
But Green Bay was also 15th in passing attempts and 17th in rushing attempts, not first in passing attempts and 32nd in rushing attempts. This balance helped the Packers finish first in time of possession and fourth in yards per drive.
A.J. Dillon, a second round pick in 2020, had 187 carries for 803 yards and ranked eighth in DYAR, 15th in DVOA. He also caught 34 of 37 passes for 313 yards. Aaron Jones had 171 carries for 799 yards and ranked 13th in DYAR, 14th in DVOA. He caught 52 of 65 passes for 391 yards. They combined for 17 touchdowns.
Dillon also ranked first in success rate (63%), but Jones was 32nd (50%), signaling that they almost acted as… individuals behind the same offensive line.
With Dillon, we see a player who could be special if given an opportunity for a larger role. It’s fair to say that teams could prefer a shared backfield given the brutality of the position. Jones, a rare value as a fifth round pick (despite the narrative that you can find great backs on day three, there’s no evidence that the position is any different than the others, if only analytics didn’t cherry pick so often), is an example of teams trying to extend the career of its back by putting him in a committee.
There has been so much focus on how the Packers “don’t do enough” to help Rodgers by merely point out one thing—they don’t draft first round receivers—that people completely ignore the fact that Green Bay had two players with over 1,100 yards from scrimmage last season besides Davante Adams.
Hey analytics! You’re so busy looking in a mirror at how “smart you look” that you’re completely missing the football game!
Every respected GM/Head Coach has shown respect for running backs
People who have drafted a first or second round running back since 2018:
Bill Belichick (Sony Michel), Sean McDermott/Brandon Beane (James Cook), Jon Gruden (Josh Jacobs), Andy Reid/Brett Veach (Clyde Edwards-Helaire), Mike Tomlin/Kevin Colbert (Najee Harris), Jason Licht (Ronald Jones), Howie Roseman (Miles Sanders), Sean McVay/Les Snead (Cam Akers), Matt LaFleur/Brian Gutekunst (Dillon).
All nine of those teams made the playoffs in 2021. The running back picks surely didn’t prevent those franchises from being successful.
Among the other five playoff teams from last season were the Bengals (Joe Mixon, second round), the Cowboys (Ezekiel Elliott, first round), and the Titans (Derrick Henry, second round). Those picks didn’t hurt those teams either.
To quote a British person, bit weird idn’t it?
The only two 2021 postseason teams excluded here are the Cardinals (Who exactly would like to follow Arizona’s model for success? Point them out to me, so we can block them) and the 49ers. But San Francisco has drafted two third round running backs in the last two years, showing a commitment to spending day two picks on the position in spite of success with players like Elijah Mitchell and Raheem Mostert.
Also drafted a third round running back in that time:
Belichick, McVay, Mike Vrabel/Jon Robinson, McDermott (2x), Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch (2x), Bruce Arians/Licht (2x)
Some other head coaches with first/second round running backs in the last five years: John Harbaugh, Chris Ballard, George Paton (Broncos), Brad Holmes (Lions), and Pete Carroll.
Can you believe it? A bunch of people on Twitter know a lot more about roster building and football than all of these men listed above.
I’m bein’ a bit cheeky, love.