For a seven-year stretch during the early stage of the millennium, LaDainian Tomlinson carried the ball at least 313 times and recorded a minimum of 375 touches in every single season. During his reign, LT’s average line looked like this: 338 carries for 1,521 yards, 65 receptions for 482 yards, and 18.4 total touchdowns. Holy shit.
Needless to say, Tomlinson didn’t “break down” in the way that we’re conditioned to believe running backs do after high-volume seasons. Actually, LT’s worst post-375 touch season came in 2008: 292 carries for 1,110 yards, 52 receptions for 426 yards, and 12 total touchdowns. That’s his worst season in eight years, by far. Holy shit.
In my latest book Fantasy Football for Smart People: What the Experts Don’t Want You to Know, I did some research on running backs coming off of seasons with heavy workloads, ultimately concluding that what we’re seeing—stats that do indeed suggest backs “break down” after receiving an abnormal number of touches—is primarily an illusion.
For a running back to acquire 350 or more carries in a season, a lot of things need to go right. He needs to be healthy; it’s simply a prerequisite for receiving so many touches. Of the 38 running backs who have gotten 350 carries in a season since 1990, the total number of games missed was five combined. Only five missed games out of a possible 608 played!
Second, the running back necessarily must maintain a certain level of efficiency. Without it, he won’t keep acquiring so many touches. If Chris Johnson is averaging 2.0 YPC after eight games this year, for example, you can bet he won’t be getting the ball nearly as much in the second half of the season. Of the top 15 running backs in single-season carries since 1990, only two have averaged less than 4.3 YPC. Nine of those 15 were above 4.5 YPC.
Knowing that the selection of backs with 350-plus carries in a season is naturally skewed toward those that were healthy and effective has profound implications on our conclusions. Naturally the outliers from the previous year, those backs are likely to regress toward the mean, independent of their workload. That is, running backs who have a high YPC are likely to regress in the following season whether they got 350 carries or 100.
So when we look at a sample of high-volume backs, it comes with a caveat; they’re almost certain to have been healthy and highly efficient. Inspecting the issue with that in mind, all we’re really saying is “running backs coming off of seasons with abnormal health and efficiency will probably see a decline in health and efficiency.” Yes, that is true. And useless.
As is customary here at rotoViz, if it can be app’d, it shall be app’d. Enter the Curse of 370 app. Using the app, some guy who goes by the name of “RotoViz Staff”—who the hell is that guy?—used the app to cast doubt on the “curse of 370” (or 350, or 330, or whatever other arbitrary number you want to choose).
It’s possible to look at running backs who carry the ball 370 times and come away feeling like there must be diminishing returns for those running backs at some point. For instance, look at the following graph, which shows Season N carries on the X axis and Season N+1 Fantasy Points on the Y axis. It looks like at 350 carries, running backs start to experience diminishing returns.
But there are a couple of problems here. First, you can see that the number of observations greater than 370 aren’t very numerous. That means we have to add randomness as a potential explanation for the so-called “Curse of 370”. The other problem is that this graph only includes carries. What if we include receptions also? This is what the graph looks like:
You can see that the peak at 350 carries disappears, the peak shifts to about 390 total touches, and the drop-off becomes much less severe. To make things even more problematic for the “Curse” is the fact that if we look at just players aged 25 and older, the peak/drop disappears entirely.
So we have an effect that definitely exists. Unless you include receptions; then it’s a little unclear. And forget about including old backs—you know, the ones you’d think might start to break down coming off of a season with a ton of touches—because they seem to perform better than the younger backs.
Again, it’s very likely that any drop in production that’s actually there is due to simple regression. Let’s consider not just those backs who received a bunch of carries—and thus were necessarily healthy and effective—but instead all running backs.
Heavy workload or not, running backs coming off of seasons in which they recorded high YPC almost always saw that number drop in the following year. Of the 25 backs to average 4.71 YPC (on at least 180 carries) from 2006 to 2010, only three (12.0 percent) increased their YPC in the next season. The average decline was an astounding 0.74 YPC. Of the 10 backs to average 5.22 YPC, the average decline was almost a full yard on each carry.
Ultimately, running backs coming off of seasons with lots of touches are likely to regress in terms of both efficiency and health, but that information is both insignificant and irrelevant to fantasy owners. Yes, you’ll probably see a dip in production if you “gamble” on a workhorse running back, but that’s because he’s an outlier at his position—not because he touched the ball 370 times instead of 320.
For the record, Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, and Marshawn Lynch all had at least 338 touches—21.1 per game—in 2012. That’s why Jamaal Charles should be the top overall pick; the Chiefs basically gave him a season off with only 20 touches per game, so you know he’ll have fresh legs in 2013.