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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Running Backs and the great Misconception


Let's say you had to construct an NFL team to win a single game, right now. What RB would you pick? I'll take a guess here and say your top five would be, in some order, Ray Rice, Matt Forte, Lesean McCoy, Arian Foster, and Jamaal Charles/Adrian Peterson (depending on which you think is recovering from his respective injury better). Any NFL team would love to have these guys. So why the hell don't their teams seem to love having them?

The obvious exceptions here are Arian and Adrian, and I'll get to them a bit later, but let's take the examples of Forte, Rice, Shady, Jamaal, and the less awesome but still useful to his team Ryan Matthews. Each has a different reason for being misused, and each reason is equally preposterous. NFL teams have a number of misconceptions about franchise RBs and the NFL game in general that are becoming more frustrating every week. From the consideration that the NFL is a "passing league" to the idea that running backs will shatter into a million pieces if they get more than 20 carries a game, there is a whole mess of misguided logic floating around.

Let's start with the Bear, Matt Forte. We all enjoyed that game against Dallas, eh? That's because the gameplan was fantastic: with one caveat. Tice called run after run in the first half to set up all the play-action and pass plays in the second half. After an entire half of running, the Cowboy defensive line had to respect the Bear run game and this gave Jay enough time in the pocket to be an amazing QB. The caveat comes because Forte gave up too many carries to Michael Bush. The idea is that Forte is still coming back from an injury, which I question mostly because they threw him in to run a dive play from the Cowboy 5 late in the game. Why would they have Forte run that play when they have Bush, think Forte is hurt, and are already almost guaranteed points? If they were easing Forte back into the lineup, the 13 carries makes sense. But otherwise, we come up to issue #1.

NFL Head Coaches View of the NFL RB.
Issue #1 in the NFL when considering running backs:  NFL head coaches now believe running backs will shatter like glass when given over 20 carries a game.

This is preposterous for a number of reasons. 1) An NFL running back is one of the world's most physically fit creatures. They are solid muscle, have extreme speed in many cases, and the odds for getting hurt on any given play are completely random. Yes; every carry you take, theoretically, increases the chance that you will get injured simply by virtue of random chance. But why are NFL GMs and coaches worried about random occurence? Football is a violent sport. People will get hurt. Worrying about this scenario so much that you stop using your best player in an attempt to... I guess be able to use him next week?... is foolishness.

The scenario I just described would be like someone only using their Xbox 360 for 30 minutes a day because THIS TIME IT COULD BREAK. Well, sure, yeah, this time it could break. But while you're not using it, it's still getting worse! It ages, collects dust, its parts start to creak and become loose. And all this happens without you even using it. A human being is the same way! Matt Forte has X number of years running at peak effectiveness. Even if the Bears only run him 15 times a game, and their theory is actually true and not just a misguided notion, they may get one extra year of peak effectiveness out of him. So I ask you, is it worth it to have one more season of Forte at 15-20 carries per game or one less with Forte at 21-30 carries a game? Throw in the random chance of injury and hell, Forte may not even make it to that extra year of effectiveness.

To summarize issue #1, you should use the nice thing you have as much as you can (within reason) while it is the nicest. Forte is a nice thing, so use him like it. If he gets injured, he gets injured. It isn't because he carried the ball 25 times a game.


Issue #2 in the NFL when considering running backs: It's a passing league! We need to pass, brah!

Sigh. This is my least favorite argument about today's NFL. Just because everyone seems to pass these days doesn't mean it's the only strategy that works. Take the positive example of Arian Foster. The Texans are, almost indisputably, the best team in the NFL. It isn't because of Matt Schaub. It's because of Arian Foster and that run game. Arian gets around 25 carries per game. The Texans give him 25 carries per game because he is their best player. Because they give him that many carries every game, the Texans tend to win games. Simple as that.

If this is a "passing league", then one can only assume Houston is "doing it wrong". I mean, they have Matt Schaub, a top 12 QB, and Andre Johnson, a top 5 WR! It should be more important to use that combination, right? Well, clearly not. The Texans are dominating the league right now because of two things: Their run game and defense.

And let us consider Arian Foster's injury history, shall we?

2010: Arian carries the ball 327 times. He carries the ball 30 times in a game three times. Plays all 16 games. Leads the league in rushing.
2011: Arian misses the first and third games of the year (and doesn't play in the 16th because the Texans had clinched). He carries the ball 278 times. He carries the ball 30 times in 3 games again. Rushes for 1224 yars in 13 games.
2012: Arian has carried the ball at least 24 times in every game. The Texans are 4-0. He is 4th in the league in rushing.

So Arian has missed two games out of 36 with an injury despite a heavy workload in games where the Texans need him to have a heavy workload. This isn't exactly supporting the ghost theory that heavy workloads kill RBs, and it isn't exactly supporting the idea that teams can only win if they are pass-centric.

How about Adrian Peterson? This is where it gets interesting. Adrian Peterson had never been seriously injured until he tore his ACL last season in game 12. Before that he had been one of the most durable backs in the NFL.

If we follow common NFL logic, Adrian got hurt because he had a heavy workload. But in reality, Adrian's workload in 2011 was lower than it had ever been. In fact, the Vikings have given Adrian fewer carries every season since he was a rookie. In other words, the Vikings have been attempting to stretch out Adrian's career by giving him less work and got drilled with an injury anyway. They gave a man in his low and mid twenties a lower and lower workload so... they could use him at 31? When he'll be less useful anyway because of the effects of time? And it ended up not mattering anyway because, guess what, he got injured. Because injury is random. Sigh.


Issue #3: The Ray Rice, Lesean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, and Ryan Matthews case: Sitting your best players because of random occurrence or because using them doesn't "fit your system".

We're used to this since we had to deal with Mike Martz for years. Matt Forte was sitting right there, one of the best 5 RBs in the league, collecting dust because Martz didn't like running the ball. And the Bears paid for it, time and again.

Right now the Ravens and Eagles are the two most eggregious offenders of the same thing. Ray Rice is the Raven's best player, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who disagrees. Joe Flacco, as Red would agree, is the most mediocre quarterback in NFL history. Yet the Ravens throw the ball 30-40 times per game and run Ray Rice less than 20 times per game. They don't use their most effective weapon because it doesn't fit their offensive scheme. How ridiculous is that? It would be like having RG3 and never letting him leave the pocket.

Lesean McCoy is suffering the same fate. Andy Reid has never been a huge fan of running the ball. But how has that worked out for him the last two years? When he had Donavan McNabb as his best player, it worked well. Now he has Mike Vick at quarterback and he has failed to adjust his gameplan. Lesean McCoy is his best player, yet he gets the Ray Rice workload in favor of 30-40 passes per game from Vick, who repeatedly turns the ball over. As Shady showed in the second half of the Sunday night game; when the Eagles commit to running him, they become a very dangerous team. When they don't, they leave their best weapon sitting in a dusty attic somewhere, and their chances of victory decrease significantly.

The case of Ryan Matthews is interesting for a different reason. This past week Ryan Matthews was benched in favor of Jackie Battle. Nobody on this earth thinks Jackie Battle is better than Ryan Matthews. Norv Turner benched him for a different reason that is equally foolish as the reasons listed above: Ryan Matthews fumbled. One time. The game before.

Fumbles are almost as random as injuries. It takes YEARS to compile enough meaningful data to say someone actually has a demonstrably better chance of fumbling than anyone else. Matthews fumbled 5 times his first year and five times his second. Five fumbles in 16 games? Is that really a massive number? Adrian Peterson fumbled NINE times in 2008 and 7 times in 2009 before only fumbling once every year since. Apparently, for Norv, five was enough to keep his best (or second best, if you're still in love with Rivers) player on the bench. It didn't cost the Chargers because they were playing one of the worst teams in the league, but future such decisions could easily cost the Bolts victories. Was it really worth getting 2.6 yards per carry out of Battle to sit Matthews because he MIGHT fumble, who came in late and ran for 6 yards per carry?

Reggie Bush and the case for running backs:

This all brings me around to my point, Reggie Bush. Coming out of college the big knock on Bush was that he could never be a feature back. He could never run more than 15 times a game because he just wasn't durable. Despite there being absolutely no evidence of this because Pete Carroll ran a two back system, everyone, including the Saints, bought in. The result was Reggie rarely even getting 10 carries a game and everyone considering him a dismal failure.

Then Reggie went to Miami. Reggie showed flashes of being a feature back to begin the year when he started to get 10+ carries regularly. Then, to end the season, Reggie started to get 20+ carries a game. And he exploded. Reggie has never had a game in which he got 20 carries and failed to reach 100 yards. This season the Dolphins won the one game in which they gave Reggie over 20 carries. In that game Reggie has his highest YPC average this season. Reggie's highest YPC average? That came during the only other game in which Reggie ran the ball 25+ times. That's right: Reggie Bush's rushing average actually goes up the more carries he gets!

This brings me to one of the main reasons I hate when great running backs are underused. People always talk about how a quarterback needs to get into rhythm. So does a running back! We all know it's harder on you car to start and stop repeatedly than it is to run the car for long stretches consecutively. The same applies to running backs. Giving a back 15 carries per game could be more detrimental to a running back, not just for his stats, but also for his health! The Adrian Peterson example comes to mind, but what about Forte? He has had light workloads his whole career, yet HE got hurt. Jamaal Charles split his carries almost 50/50 with Thomas Jones and HE got hurt. The list goes on. For every case there is that shows a large workload will kill an RB, there's another case which shows a LOW workload does the same! Why? BECAUSE INJURY IS RANDOM.

Basically, failing to use your best offensive weapon is ridiculous. There is no information to suggest a reasonably heavy RB workload (25-30 carries per game) is any more detrimental to an RB than a low workload (15-20 carries). NFL teams shy away from using their amazing weapons now so they can use them later, but they keep stalling indefinitely. They never fully use what they have, and it inevitably goes to waste. Use your great RBs now, while you have the chance! Because injury is random, and it could take that RB away at any time.


Erik said...

I think the one thing you missed is that the general perception of what a running game is for has changed. We talk about using the run to set up the pass, or to keep the defense honest, or to slow the pass rush and get the QB time. The point of a good running back should be to carry the ball. Forward, preferably, and probably into the endzone. Look at Arian Foster. You think anybody in Houston is telling him his job is to "keep the defense honest?"

Iggins! said...

Yeah, I was running a bit long, but I had about another 2 or 3 thousand words left on how badly misused RBs have become. You make a great point, far too many coaches, despite having great backs, simply can't think of a running back as anything more than a guy to throw dump-offs to and defer attention from the pass game.

I keep coming back to Ray Rice and Lesean McCoy here. The offense should be centered around THEM, and instead they're either used as decoys or given a few swing passes a game. The offensive coordinators are almost upset when they have to use them. It's like they're 12 year olds playing Madden. Remember when everyone used to just pass 70 times a game? And now that you're better you run 25 times a game? THAT'S NFL COACHES. They just didn't grow up!

You would think the success of Arian Foster would engender some of these guys to running it more. The way the Bears did things Monday night and the way the Texans do things can be just as effective, if not moreso, than the pass happy offenses of Green Bay and New England.

I will say this: I think coaches will catch on soon. The league has changed its draft strategy to drastically favorite pass rush and pass defense, which has actually made the league more weak to the run than the pass. The teams that figure this out could come out on top for the next five or so years.

Erik said...

I think that's an inevitable outcome. Defenses drank the "passing league" Kool-Aid, and they're about to get fucked up by running backs who don't give a shit about your pass rush or press coverage because they just slipped between the tackles for 14 yards, fuck you.