Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Angry Rant: Running Backs are Overrated (and I blame ESPN and Fantasy)

by John Huffstetler

Pretty easy to score when you just walk in
I've ranted against ESPN before in an article that discussed how they were more of an entertainment network than a sports network, and this issue ties directly to that issue of athlete glorification. Running Backs on the pro level simply are not nearly as important as they are perceived. In fact, of all the offensive and defensive positions, one could argue that running back is the least important. The offensive line's ability to block and create space for a back to operate is a dramatically more important factor in creating rushing yards than a back's perceived ability. Granted, there are a handful of players who can make a difference in their teams' success or failure on any given week, but outside of this small list, they are all basically interchangeable.

You're not that good, CJ2K
What evidence is there to support this theory? For starters, there is an obvious growing trend to split carries in the NFL, which shows teams are willing to choose the fresher back over a "better" back in many situations. These teams also do not want one player to gain too many yards, gain to much acclaim, and overestimate their own value (see the MJD and Chris Johnson holdouts). Additionally, Football Outsiders has a great statistic that attempts to measure a RB's value while taking away the yards that the offensive line directly generated for that player. DYAR (Defensive-adjusted yards above replacement) gives "the value of the performance on plays where this RB carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage." In this telling statistic, 16 of the 32 starters in the league are either equal to or worse than their backups when combining rushing and receiving totals. These numbers can be found here.
Wait, how is Chan Gailey a head coach again?

CJ Spiller (technically a backup because of Chan Gailey's own stupidity) is #2 in the entire league in this stat! The starters that are significantly better than their replacement(s) (50 yards or more difference) can be counted on two hands and several are the obvious ones: Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Willis McGahee, Doug Martin, and DeMarco Murray. That's it. Notice that most of these players receive a majority of carries over their replacements when healthy as well. There are three players that receive a decided majority of carries but this year are worse than an average replacement: LeSean McCoy, Darren McFadden, and Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis. All big names, yet all 3 teams would be better off with an average NFL replacement than these rushers this year. McFadden has been particularly dreadful with a -103 mark (worst among rushers receiving over 63 carries). Trent Richardson, the Browns "terrific" pick in last years draft is -22 rushing the football compared to an average replacement (though he makes up for it with a +66 receiving mark), yet he warranted a Browns trade to make him a top 3 pick? Not whatsoever, as we discussed in our draft blog the night of the draft.

So why are running backs so overvalued? First, the ESPN bottom line for every game lists either the stats for the QB, RB, WR, or TE. I understand that it is difficult to quantify how well an O-line does during a game, but ESPN makes no effort to attempt to credit the O-line. The way some ESPN analysts discuss the way a back played contributes to this fallacy as well. Running backs are routinely highlighted for their "great play" without mention of the how the offensive line allowed them to be untouched for 10 yards. Here are the highlights from last Thursday night's Tampa Bay/Minnesota game and the 214 yards gained by Doug Martin largely because of the Tampa Bay blocking. Notice how Martin barely gets touched until he's several yards downfield on most carries because all he needs to do is run to the open space. A running back is only as good as the blocking in front of him. ESPN routinely misses the mark on this principle.

Fantasy football is to blame as well with every idiot who plays fantasy football thinking that the best fantasy players are also the best real players. There's a reason why Arian Foster rushes for a ton of yards every year, and it's not his's the Texans fantastic O-line. Back in the day, the Chiefs had the best O-line in the league and they made Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson look like Barry Sanders. As soon as LJ left the Chiefs, his career was over because he was never that good to begin with. There's a reason the Patriots go through RB's like toilet paper. They know it's their offensive line that makes the running game work. I understand it would be difficult to credit an offensive line for their effort in fantasy, but why not credit rush yards gained as a team, pancake blocks, and subtracting for sacks allowed? Seems like a legitimate formula to me. At least then the thousands of fantasy players in this country who know nothing about the sport can at least begin to understand what actually makes a team successful. Hopefully, we can start to change this perception and credit the great offensive lineman this league has to offer that relatively anonymously guide their teams to glory.

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