Lamar Miller might leave Miami this offseason. If he stays, he has a real shot to finally prove he can be a workhorse back. If he goes, that opportunity might fall into Jay Ajayi‘s lap. Either way, a close look at Adam Gase’s tendencies makes me believe we’ll see a feature back in Miami next season. A few weeks ago, Heith Krueger took a look at what Gase means for the Dolphins offense. In it, he broke down the various positions, and noted that only twice in Gase’s four years as a coordinator has a running back tallied more than 250 touches. Still, the positive signs led Heith to conclude he’d be very interested in Jay Ajayi if Miller were to walk.
Since many of the running backs in Gase’s offenses over the last four years have gone down with multi-week injuries, I did some digging to see if the full-season numbers were a bit misleading. Analyzing coaching tendencies can often be a fool’s errand, but in this case it’s pretty hard to deny the trend that takes shape. Here’s a breakdown in table form.
|Player||Segment||MS ruATT||MS TRG||ATT||TRG||PPR FPG|
|Willis McGahee||2012, Weeks 1-10||0.656||0.094||17.8||3.4||15.2|
|Knowshon Moreno||2012, Weeks 12-17||0.618||0.117||21.8||4.2||17.5|
|Montee Ball||2014, Weeks 1-3||0.69||0.073||16.3||2.7||11.5|
|Ronnie Hillman||2014, Weeks 4-9||0.612||0.121||16.4||4.8||17.8|
|C.J. Anderson||2014, Weeks 10-17||0.681||0.132||20.3||4.9||24.5|
|Matt Forte||2015, Weeks 1-7||0.724||0.15||21||5.3||18.1|
|Jeremy Langford||2015, Weeks 8-10||0.549||0.147||16.7||4.7||21.7|
These market shares are more impressive when you consider each of these four teams finished in the top 12 of the NFL in rush attempts.1 By contrast, Miami was dead last in rush attempts in 2015. So even without arguing in favor of a feature back, there is already a case that Adam Gase utilizes his RBs significantly more than Miami has in the past.
The devil’s in the details, so let’s examine the context of each season.
Gase was first listed as an offensive coordinator in 2012, though he shared the position with incumbent Mike McCoy. I’m not sure 2012 tells us much, but I included it mostly in the interest of full disclosure. It does follow the same pattern as later years.
Willis McGahee led the backfield in touches for the season while playing in just the first 10 games. The Fantasy Efficiency App gives him 65.6 percent of the rush attempts and 9.4 percent of targets over the first nine (he was injured in the 10th game, Week 11). After the injury, Knowshon Moreno carried the load in Weeks 12 through 17.
Early in the 2013 season, there was a bit of a timeshare in the Denver backfield. That said, Moreno eventually established himself as the starter, and saw a strong workload. Late in the year he suffered what was referred to as a “significant bone bruise,” and the 9-2 Broncos seemed to lighten his workload before the playoffs. To wit, his four lowest rush attempt games for the season were Weeks 1, 15, 16, and 17.
In the end, Moreno finished as the PPR RB4 on the season, and had 24 and 16 touches in their first two playoff games.2 While Moreno’s 2013 market share of rush attempts is among the lowest in the above table, it’s tough to nitpick his workload too much.
At the start of 2014, the Broncos chose to lean on Montee Ball. Despite underwhelming performances right out of the gate, Ball was the clear lead man until an injury early in Week 4. Through the first three weeks, he had accounted for a 69 percent share of rush attempts and 7.3 percent share of targets.
As I mentioned, his production wasn’t good, but he was still averaging 11.5 PPR FPG thanks to his workload.3 Taking over in Week 4 was Ronnie Hillman, who was the new workhorse until he was also bitten by the injury bug in Week 10. Over the five-game stretch preceding his injury, Hillman saw 61.2 percent of rush attempts and a 12.1 percent share of targets.
Only four RBs in the NFL averaged more PPR FPG over the 2014 season than Hillman’s 17.8 during this stretch.
Of course, from that point on it was the C.J. Anderson show. Anderson received a 68.1 percent share of rush attempts and 13.2 percent share of targets from Week 10 to Week 17.
Anderson averaged 24.5 PPR FPG over this stretch. For context, DeMarco Murray led the NFL in 2014 at 19.0 FPG.
Anderson also saw 18 of 20 team carries in their one playoff game, and added six receptions.
What’s fascinating about 2014 is how the Broncos turned to the next man up as injuries struck the Bronco backfield multiple times, but always maintained a clear hierarchy.
Heading to Chicago for 2015, Gase found himself in charge of one Matt Forte. Forte was already the poster-boy for large workloads, but the continuance of the trend isn’t to be ignored. Forte was injured in Week 8, but saw a typical feature workload prior to that game.
From Week 8 to Week 10, things were a little muddy (i.e. Forte played some of Week 8, and Ka’Deem Carey got the start for Week 9), but Jeremy Langford was pretty close to a feature back. Over that span he averaged almost 16.7 carries and 4.7 targets per game.
Upon Forte’s return, the workload was fairly evenly split. This is the most recent information in Gase’s coaching tenure – which could be the most telling – but there were also extenuating circumstances to consider. Forte was set to be a free agent in what was quickly becoming a lost season for the team. It would seem important for the Bears to gather more information on Langford to aid in offseason decisions. At the same time, Forte may have been considered too much of a presence in Chicago to bench him outright.4
Perhaps I’m unfairly brushing off late-2015, but I think the first few months of the season were more telling of Gase’s preferred arrangement than the last seven weeks.
What Did the Fox Say?
One issue is separating Gase from head coach John Fox, under whom he operated for each of these seasons. Could some of this be a product of Fox’s philosophy?
Probably not. For one, Fox was a defensive coordinator for years before becoming a head coach. More importantly, Fox tended toward a committee prior to coming to Denver.5 A quick look at the Game Splits App shows in the first three seasons of Jonathan Stewart‘s career – Fox’s final three in Carolina – DeAngelo Williams played in 35 games, all of which Stewart was active for. In those games Williams averaged 16.5 rush attempts and 2.4 targets, while Stewart saw 11 attempts and 1.3 targets.
It’s always tough to be certain, but it’s probably safe to suggest Fox was not the driver of these tendencies.
Coaching tendencies are a dangerous guessing game. At the same time, predicting backfield usage is a very important part of identifying offseason RB value. Setting aside the end of 2015, Adam Gase offenses have shown a pretty clear trend to feature a single back over the last four seasons, even as injuries have changed his available personnel.
And the injuries, I think, are the key. Time and again, when uncertainty arose, these offenses drifted toward featuring one player. When it comes time for projecting the 2016 NFL season, it will be hard for me to deny these trends.
As for Lamar Miller, the concern is not production. He just turned in the RB5 season while averaging 12.1 carries and 3.6 targets. If he leaves Miami, some team will be paying for his services to presumably use him more than that. If he re-signs, I fully expect this to be the year with the opportunity increase we’ve all been waiting for. Given that, I’m high on acquiring Miller based on not seeing a lot of downside either way.
Of course, if Miller does go, Jay Ajayi becomes a very intriguing name. Either way, I’ll be buying the likely feature back for Gase in Miami.
- Of course Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler weren’t exactly adding a bunch of attempts on quarterback scrambles, so this represents a lot of opportunity for RBs particularly. (back)
- You may recall the Super Bowl was a blowout. Moreno didn’t see a touch after the first drive of the third quarter, finishing with eight. (back)
- The app reflects half-point PPR scoring. (back)
- Not to mention the unnecessary injury implications with working Langford too hard if there was a capable alternative. (back)
- Note that Gase was on Fox’s staff from his first year in Denver in 2011, so I’m venturing back a bit to get a different perspective on Fox. (back)