OC’s Gameplan: Bad Offenses and Good RBs

Updated: March 8th 2018

My brother once asked me when he was going to college: what major was most likely to find a wife?   Looking back, this is an odd thing for an 18 year-old to worry about, but highlighted for me the importance what questions we should be asking.   Orthodoxy around drafting running backs points us toward opportunity.   That wisdom of the crowd may not be far off, but one aspect of a running back’s chances often has me thinking and saying statements such as: “draft running backs attached to good offenses,” or “I want Aaron Rodgers’ caddie.”   At a macro level, our preparation for the 2018 season, and the projections of the best minds in the fantasy business, suggest that a team’s overall pace of play, scoring, and potential yardage is factored and then fantasy prognosticators can begin carving the ham for individual players.   The hours of our lives we spend panning through the dirt and grit of film and data for the nuggets of golden touchdown goodness from our adopted players is desperate to a degree that might even merit sympathy from prospectors.  How do we find the highest scoring running backs? Do we know the best offenses?  Will the two ever meet?

Think for a moment about the scoring offenses that are truly great over the last three years.   Upstarts in the LA Rams took the crown this past season.  Prior to that was Atlanta’s outlier, and the season before the Falcons, the Carolina Panthers.   The only thing these offenses share is that none of them appear in the top 10 the other two seasons under our scrutiny.   Not too many hands are in the air when asked who predicted the Gurley men would wreck real and fantasy seasons, nor Matty Ice flinging the rock like the only sober guy in a cornhole contest.  However, the Panthers led by wunderkind Cam Newton had more preseason hype.   The only problem is that if we attached our fantasy RB fortunes to the Panthers, the recently departed Jonathan Stewart was riding shotgun and returned RB2 numbers.   Not until 2017 did the top overall RB come from the top scoring team, and last season of the top 24 scoring RBs, 16 of them came from offenses outside the top 10.   It did become slightly more promising in the top 10 where 6 of the 10 RBs corresponded to the top offenses, but two of them, Mark Ingram and the golden-grilled Alvin Kamara hailed from the same offense.

Two significant problems arise with the “hitch your cart to the best offense” theory of drafting running backs.  1) Our cart-hitching is fairly random, as only three offenses (NE, NO, and Pitt) have sustained a presence in the top 10 for the last three years.  2) Even if we manage to predict those offenses, only one of them, has produced a top 10 back in all three years.  Pittsburgh managed that feat but with DeAngelo Williams in 2015 and Lev Bell the past two seasons.   In fairness, NO should be counted on as well.  Standing in the shadow of larger names, Mark Ingram makes a case for the most consistent back in fantasy over the last three years (registering RB1 numbers each time) but just outside of the top 10 once.

The most stunning aspect of looking into the truly elite NFL scoring offenses, however, is that the league AVERAGE for rushing touchdowns over that three year span was always within 5 of an average of those elite offenses.  In 2017 the ratio was 12/17, 2016: 14/16, and 11.4/16.*  The elite offenses seem to distinguish themselves by outstripping their average counterparts in passing touchdowns by nearly double digit margins.  Fantasy orthodoxy holds that players should look to tether their fortunes to RBs in the best offenses.   The truth seems to point to other aspects of opportunity as far more important and so future examinations of offensive play calling will point you to the coordinators and players likely to garner scoring chances.  Incidentally, I told my brother he should look into Musical Theatre and Nursing…opportunity over talent, I suppose.

*All numbers drawn from the inestimable Pro Football Reference


Luke @FantasyDocOC is husband, father, doctoral student, and teacher slowly building a reality dynasty league comprised entirely of daughters. He writes OC’s Gamplan for Reality Sports Online.  Following in the footsteps of Saint Francis, “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” CUA. Hoya Saxa.

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