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Does John Fox Really Prefer A Running Back By Committee?

It is a well known narrative that current Chicago Bears head coach John Fox “prefers a running back by committee approach”. This belief has been used multiple times this offseason by beat reporters to project how the Bears backfield workload will shake out in 2016.

Via Rotoworld on June 16, 2016:

The Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs expects the Bears to employ a “shared backfield” this season. Biggs says “most consider” Jeremy Langford the “odds-on favorite” to be named the starter ahead of Week 1, but Ka’Deem Carey and fifth-round pick Jordan Howard may both be involved. Biggs notes that Bears coach John Fox “consistently used a backfield by committee” during his time with the Panthers and Broncos.

And again via Rotoworld on July 18, 2016:

The Chicago Tribune’s Rich Campbell reports the Bears plan to use a “committee approach” at running back. “It promises to be hell for fantasy football owners,” Campbell wrote, “but Fox wants to limit backs’ workload and play the so-called hot hand.”

The conclusions make sense, right?

Look at the RB1 and RB2 usage distributions for Fox’s head coaching career:

Year Position Rush Attms Targets
2015 RB1 218 58
RB2 148 42
2014 RB1 179 44
RB2 106 34
2013 RB1 241 74
RB2 120 27
2012 RB1 167 33
RB2 139 26
2011 RB1 249 20
RB2 96 32
2010 RB1 178 14
RB2 103 57
2009 RB1 221 26
RB2 216 41
2008 RB1 273 30
RB2 184 17
2007 RB1 247 36
RB2 144 38
2006 RB1 227 46
RB2 121 36
2005 RB1 205 48
RB2 180 12
2004 RB1 217 61
RB2 68 32
2003 RB1 318 17
RB2 113 35
2002 RB1 209 26
RB2 102 33

Looking at the table, without context, would certainly lead anyone to draw the conclusion that he prefers a shared approach to his running game. I decided to dig a little deeper to figure out if this was by design or simply the result caused by something else.

I added some context to the previous table by inserting the player’s names and the number of games they appeared in.

Year Player Games Played Rush Attms Targets
2015 Forte 13 218 58
Langford 16 148 42
2014 CJA 15 179 44
Hillman 8 106 34
2013 Moreno 16 241 74
Ball 16 120 27
2012 McGahee 10 167 33
Moreno 8 139 26
2011 McGahee 15 249 20
Lance Ball 16 96 32
2010 Stewart 14 178 14
Goodson 16 103 57
2009 Stewart 16 221 26
Williams 13 216 41
2008 Williams 16 273 30
Stewart 16 184 17
2007 Foster 16 247 36
Williams 16 144 38
2006 Foster 14 227 46
Williams 13 121 36
2005 Foster 15 205 48
Davis 13 180 12
2004 Goings 16 217 61
Hoover 14 68 32
2003 Davis 14 318 17
Foster 14 113 35
2002 Smith 11 209 26
Brown 14 102 33

Only three times in fourteen seasons did both the RB1 and RB2 play all sixteen games. In 2007, Deangelo Williams, the Panthers 1st round pick in 2006, split touches with the oft-injured, incumbent starter DeShaun Foster in the final year of Foster’s contract. In 2008, Carolina went back to the 1st round running back well and selected Jonathan Stewart as the 13th overall selection. In 2013, the Broncos selected prized prospect Montee Ball with their 2nd round pick seemingly to replace the oft-injured and ineffective Knowshon Moreno. I would contend that in all three instances, there was more than likely some pressure on the coaching staff to utilize the high draft capital spent on the position.

What about the other eleven seasons? Was the workload distribution a result of preference or necessity?

In this table, I took all of the years in which the starting running back failed to play the full season and took his average per game workload and redistributed it. By doing this, I tried to determine what a full season workload breakdown might have been had both “committee” running backs stayed healthy.

Year Player Rush Attms Targets
2015 Forte 268 71
Langford 98 29
2014 CJA 191 47
Hillman 94 31
2012 McGahee 267 53
Moreno 39 6
2011 McGahee 266 21
Lance Ball 79 31
2010 Stewart 203 16
Goodson 78 55
2009 Stewart 171 17
Williams 266 50
2006 Foster 259 53
Williams 89 29
2005 Foster 219 51
Davis 166 9
2004 Goings 217 61
Hoover 68 32
2003 Davis 363 19
Foster 68 33
2002 Smith 304 38
Brown 7 21

Only twice the backup RB would have paced over 100 rushing attempts in 16 games. That’s similar to the number of carries that Charles Sims posted in 2015. Yet people aren’t scared off of drafting Doug Martin due to a dreaded “running back by committee” workload.

It might seem silly to project RBs to play 16 games. Especially at RotoViz, since we harp heavily on the fragility of the running back position. In 2015, only 27 running backs played in 16 games and many of those were not the “starter”.

Will all four Bears’ RBs stay healthy for a full season? I don’t know. Odds are they probably won’t. Only if they do, can we say for certain whether or not the head coach prefers a committee.

I’m bullish on Jeremy Langford taking a lion’s share of the running back touches in 2016. Looking at Langford’s splits when Matt Forte didn’t play, it shows how productive he was in his three starts, despite his inefficiency. His splits also illuminate how much he was used in the passing game even when Forte (the active leader in RB receptions) was available. In the first eight weeks with Forte, Langford saw only a 17-percent snap share. Hardly a committee until Forte sprained his MCL.

langford splits

Closing Thoughts

For certain, Langford will need to improve on his rookie efficiency in the both facets of the offense. I think he’s currently being undervalued based on his small 2015 sample size and an unfounded fear that 2016 5th round pick, Jordan Howard, will force a timeshare. The coaching staff felt comfortable enough with Langford to play him 74-percent of the offensive snaps in the three games while their star, do-everything RB was on the mend. I think there is a misinterpretation of the historical statistics that is leading both writers and fantasy players to believe this will definitely be a split backfield. To say that John Fox “prefers” a running back by committee approach is probably incorrect.

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