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Doomsday! Why Fantasy Running Backs Are Even Worse Off Than We Feared

AdrianPeterson

Several months ago I released my first article on RotoViz entitled “The Death of the Fantasy Running Back, and How We Can Save the Position from Extinction”. It is the article I am most proud of writing and, just as important to me, it was very well received and supported by the fantasy football community as a whole. It is my hope that this piece will build upon the foundation that article laid and will help fantasy owners accept and process what I feel is a trend that could ultimately reshape the game of fantasy football in ways which will make the game of 2025 vastly different than the 2015 season we are about to embark upon. If you haven’t read my previous piece on this subject yet then I’d encourage you to do so before proceeding with reading this piece as it will provide a good amount of needed context prior to digging into this article.

Perhaps one of the most striking images from my first article was this graph:

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 1.38.46 PM

One of the comments I heard the most was, “Why didn’t we see this coming when the data appears to show a decline in rushing for nearly 35 years?” Unfortunately, I don’t have a really great answer for that other than the fact that it is easy to ignore a decline in rushing when the top RBs in the game continue to put up excellent numbers. What is easy to miss is the erosion of the rushing game from the lower ranks of the position, no one really notices if lower level RB2s perform at ever lower rates. Writers rarely release articles discussing why players on your bench are underperforming but we are about to enter a period in which the decline in rushing will begin to erode the production of RBs drafted to be starters on fantasy teams.

Hasn’t the era of the RB returned though? The 2015 NFL Draft saw a RB drafted in the opening round of the draft for the first time since 2012, and not one but two! I’d caution those who subscribe to this line of thinking against using any one year to either prove or disprove any point they wish to make. Sure, some years will see an increase in rushing yards over any number of previous years, human nature is such that we tend to regress to the norm. However, the “new normal” is a clear decline in rushing as an offensive option.

In my original piece I painted a fairly bleak picture of how the fantasy RB as we know it is headed either for extinction, a serious reevaluation of the value of the position or the implementation of new scoring features to account for the decline. It rattled, surprised or flat out shocked many people. However, I am here now to share with you, the readers, some additional research I’ve conducted and the one take away from it is this: It gets much worse!

My original piece presented the decline in rushing as a tragedy for RBs, and it is. However, here’s the truly devastating news, not only is rushing as a whole deteriorating, the RB position’s share of those declining yards are eroding as well! Put another way, RBs aren’t only losing value as an offensive option, they are losing value as a rushing option as well.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” some are saying, “Running backs run the ball, that’s a huge part of what do!” This is true, and also why this is so important to understand. A huge part of the points RBs score in fantasy football come from rushing the ball, no one disputes this. However, if the action of rushing the ball is slowly declining this should mean that RB values are declining as well. Again, all true and it’s fairly easy to follow the logic thus far. Now, what if RBs were not only losing value due to the decline in rushing as a whole but what if they were also losing additional value due to a declining share of rushing attempts. Why would this occur? Well, two separate, but ultimately connected, factors have converged in recent years to further damage RB values and these two factors show absolutely no signs of dissipating or reversing.

The first factor is the rise of the mobile quarterback as a rushing weapon. Yes, QBs  have always found ways to gain yardage on the ground but, for the most part, their job was to stay behind the line of scrimmage, throw the ball and run only when it was absolutely necessary and then only for short gains.

The second factor is the establishment, strengthening and enforcement of the Slide Rule, specifically Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1, Line D. Yeah, it’s a mouthful to even reference but that specific entry states the ball is dead, “when a runner declares himself down by sliding feet first on the ground. The ball is dead the instant the runner touches the ground with anything other than his hands or his feet.” This rule matters because now quarterbacks can become potent rushing weapons with very little risk of becoming injured if they understand and utilize this rule.

What has the convergence of these two factors done to the workload of RBs? Perhaps, not so surprisingly it has dealt the usage of RBs an ever increasing blow year after year. In 2005, the percentage of rushing yardage gained in an NFL season by QBs was eight percent, ten short years later that number has jumped to 12 percent of all the rushing yardage in the 2014 season. Over that same time period the percentage of rushing yardage gained by RBs decreased from 90 percent to 84 percent. These aren’t insignificant shifts either when measured against the backdrop of steadily decreasing rushing production overall. Put more simply, RBs are being allocated a steadily shrinking piece of an ever shrinking pie. The position’s workload is being burned at both ends.

It’s a fairly bleak assessment but what does it look like for RBs if the trend witnessed over the past ten years persists another ten years? Quite honestly, nothing pretty for the RB position.

Passing continues to dominate the play calling landscape and rushing, while still necessary, continues to wane. When the ball is rushed it increasingly is the QB who is doing it. Over the span of ten years rushing will shed a bit over three percent of its overall usage, RBs will see an additional seven percent erosion of that reduced usage. Where RBs can expect to gain around 48,900 rushing yards as a position in the 2015 season, by the 2024 season the position is projected to gain only 43,300 rushing yards collectively by current usage trends, an 11.5 percent drop! Meanwhile QBs as a whole can be expected to gain roughly 7,500 rushing yards this season but by 2024 that number explodes to 10,100, a 35 percent increase in QB rushing usage!

If we use last season’s top ten RB rushing leaders and extrapolate these numbers forward ten years we get this sad outlook:

Expected Decline in Running Back Rushing Usage
2014 Rushing Yards(Actual) 2024 Rushing Yards (Projected) 2014 Rank Using2024 Projection
RB1 1845 1633 2
RB2 1361 1204 7
RB3 1319 1167 7
RB4 1306 1156 7
RB5 1266 1120 9
RB6 1246 1103 10
RB7 1139 1008 14
RB8 1124 995 14
RB9 1106 979 14
RB10 1099 973 14

Within ten years your standard 12 team league will have only one RB likely to produce as a top five RB by today’s standards and only six players will even put up numbers considered to be within the top ten RB range by those same standards. Four top ten RBs from 2024 likely will not even be considered RB1’s for today’s fantasy teams, a truly shocking and scary scenario to consider for dynasty owners.

Without a change in how we, the fantasy football community, score the game not only will the RB position undergo a dramatic change but so will the very game itself. After my first RotoViz article was released I fielded several questions regarding various scoring changes many had devised in order to help preserve the value of the RB position. A large percentage of these proposals centered around a desire to allocate points for rush attempts, much in the same way points are awarded for each reception in points per reception (PPR) leagues. While I applaud people for recognizing the threat that a decline in rushing poses to the fantasy football game and attempting to devise ways to minimize or neutralize that threat, I sincerely believe that awarding points per rush attempt is misguided for two important reasons.

First, if rushing plays are declining then the act of awarding points per rush doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, it is simply a band-aid which will only spike RB production for one or two seasons before the decline will continue again, this time at a much more rapid pace as yardage and then rush attempts decline in unison.

The second reason this approach is misguided is due to the fact that this scoring change doesn’t reward production as PPR does, it rewards volume. If you award 0.25 points per rush and keep 0.10 points per rushing yard then it stands that Player A, a player who had a performance where he rushed ten times for 100 yards (12.5 points), could be just as valuable as Player B, a player who rushed 30 times for 50 yards (12.5 points). Now Player A in this scenario clearly had a much better day and helped his team a lot more than Player B who only gained a little over a yard and a half per rush.

I have developed a solution which I have dubbed “Weighted Rushing Performance” (WRP) that I believe to be more flexible and rewards production over volume. The solution involves a formula which, while it solves the problem, isn’t as elegant to determine as PPR. Nonetheless, it incorporates scoring for rush attempts while also accounting for how a RB utilizes the chances he was given. The first step in this solution is to determine how many times the RB attempted a rush and divide that number by four, which can be easily remembered as the number of quarters in a game. Next, determine the average yards per carry and divide it by two. Finally, as is currently done, multiply the number of rushing yards gained and multiply that number by 0.10. Touchdowns and turnovers can be scored as they currently are. Given the two examples we used earlier here is how each player now measures up to each other:

 

Weighted Rushing Performance (WRP) Scoring
Event Player Value Multiplier Output
Rushes Player A 10 Divide By 4 2.5
Player B 30 7.5
Yards Per Carry Player A 10 Divide By 2 5
Player B 1.5 0.75
Rushing Yards Gained Player A 100 Multiply By .10 10
Player B 50 5

 

When these values are applied to the scoring equation we get the following:

 

Player A

1 + (10) = 22.5 points

(12.5) + (10) = 22.5 points

Player B

2 + (5) = 10.6 points

(5.6) + (5) = 10.6 points

As I said earlier, is this solution elegant? No, I wish it could be simplified much more so that it would be easy to calculate on the fly and didn’t require a calculator to determine how a player performed. However, in this solution players are rewarded in such a way where even if rushing continues to decline, performance when those attempts are given is rewarded much more handsomely than today’s scoring solutions. I would recommend that the scoring having to do with yards per carry be calculated only at the end of a player’s game so as to prevent large swings either up or down throughout the game. Finally, when receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns and bonus points for performance thresholds, such as extra points being awarded for rushing over 100 yards in a game, are factored in, the RB position is suddenly much more stable and should continue to hold its value for many years to come.

Ultimately any scoring changes should not be applied solely to the RB position, additional changes will be needed to account for the explosion in passing. The PPR standard should also be reexamined as should quarterback scoring in a very serious way. Failure to do so in the near future will cause havoc with player valuations on the foreseeable horizon.

  1. 2.5) * (5  (back)
  2. 7.5) * (.75  (back)

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