This article is part of our East Coast Offense series.Everything Matters
One of the great (or terrible, depending on your perspective) things about the 2018 NFL draft is the Giants taking Saquon Barkley at No. 2 opened an ongoing debate over what's important in the NFL. Is it insane to take any back that high when your team needs a QB? Or is it basic common sense to take the best player for his position when the quarterbacks after Baker Mayfield were ordinary as far as early-round prospects go?
I've weighed in a few times on this, and I don't want to rehash it again here. Instead, I want to re-frame the debate in a more nuanced and hopefully useful way. Ideology is usually the enemy of truth.
There are two separate questions here, and I want to take on each one in turn. The first is whether running back play matters. The second is whether particular running backs matter.
My contention is the play of everyone on the team matters in proportion to their respective roles. As long as teams are running the ball (this year, the ratio of runs to passes league-wide is 43/57), then running back play matters. As long as teams are passing the ball, quarterback play matters. When you consider that bell cow running backs handle most of the team's rushes and some of their passes, those players have highly significant roles, and of course their performance greatly affects the team. I don't think this is especially controversial.
Some might argue that actually running back play does not matter because even good teams sometimes have poor YPC averages. Or put differently, good YPC doesn't correlate as strongly with winning as good YPA. This year, the Patriots (4.1 YPC, 25th), the Bears (4.1, 24th), Steelers (4.2, 20th) and Saints (4.2, 19th) are all good despite being below average on a per-carry basis. (The Chiefs, Chargers, Rams, Seahawks and Cowboys are all top-10, incidentally, but the four "weak" running teams make the point well enough.)
But there are two flaws with this argument: (1) The Bears, Saints, Steelers and Patriots all get vast conbributions from their backs in the passing game. Tarik Cohen, Alvin Kamara, James Conner and James White each have more than 450 receiving yards and all average at least 8.5 yards per catch; and (2) Even if we simply stick with the ground game, YPC isn't the best measure of RB success. Instead, the success rate of the carries is more pertinent, e.g., a three-yard run on third-and-two is more successful than a nine-yard run on 3rd-and-14. Because on average teams run 43 percent of the time, running success is obviously a huge component of play success generally. Good teams convert first downs, score touchdowns inside the red zone and do not give away plays. What's more plausible, the idea that the Patriots, who run more than the league average (45%) simply give away nearly half their plays to a below-average running game, or that they know when they need to run and what they need to gain when they do so?
In fact, all the best teams in the league from the four YPC laggards whose backs excel as pass catchers, as well as the Todd Gurley Rams, the Melvin Gordon/Austin Ekeler Chargers and the formerly Kareem Hunt (14.5 yards per catch) Chiefs have major passing-game weapons out of the backfield. Running back *play* matters.
The second question is whether individual running backs matter. After all, the Patriots had success last year with Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead, and now they use James White and Sony Michel. The Steelers had Le'Veon Bell, and now they have James Conner. The other top teams (Saints, Rams, Chargers, Chiefs, Bears) have more continuity, but the exceptions merit some explanation.
First, it's possible James Conner is simply good. The Steelers had a great back in Bell, but they were lucky to have another good one in Conner. The Patriots have dealt with some injuries to their backs, but Michel was a first-round pick, and lately he's run like one. But if Conner - and players like Phillip Lindsay and Matt Breida - can emerge from nowhere, surely running backs are easy to come by and not worth investing in. Even Hunt and Kamara were middle-round picks, so why would a team spend a pick on Todd Gurley, Zeke Elliott or Barkley?
It's like asking would you rather have your second and third round picks in fantasy, or whichever two undrafted players wind up doing best at the end of the year? Of course, players will emerge that no one knew to draft, but that doesn't mean you'd know which ones to take if you gave up your early picks. Most undrafted (or late-round picks) are bad. That there are a few good ones doesn't invalidate your early choices any more than Tom Brady or Russell Wilson panning out later invalidiates taking Carson Wentz in the NFL draft. (Granted, more middle- and late-round RBs pan out than QBs, but that's partly because so many more RBs are taken in those rounds and get opportunities to play.)
If running back play is important, then it's important to have good running backs wherever you get them. If you can get a Lindsay late or a Kamara in the third round, great. But that doesn't mean the Cowboys overpaid for Elliott or the Rams shouldn't have drafted Gurley where they did. You have pay up for something early, and late-round hits at any position (while always better values) do not counterfeit the good players for whom you ponied up.
Another fallacious argument I've seen is that Hunt and Gordon were obviously not missed this weekend because the Chiefs scored 40 points and the Chargers scored 33, respectively. In the Chiefs case, they also allowed 33 points to the Raiders whose top receivers are Jordy Nelson, Seth Roberts and Marcell Ateman. Do the Chiefs still allow 33 points, if they're having more success on running plays and passes to Hunt out of the backfield? Teams that can succeed and extend drives give their defense a rest by keeping the other team's defense on the field. The star running back, in a sense, is also a defensive player - he's the success-rate machine that delivers the body blows and keeps his team from taking them. To look at offense and defense entirely in isolation from one another is to have an incomplete picture.
In the Chargers case, they were down 23-7, and the game didn't turn around until Justin Jackson started gashing Pittsburgh with successful runs. Ah, you say, if Jackson can do just as well as Melvin Gordon, doesn't that show how overrated Gordon's impact is? Actually, no. That game showed how important the back's impact is and when Ekeler wasn't making it, the offense suffered. It could be used as evidence to show that Gordon, the particular player, isn't important if any unheralded rookie can do his job, but let's keep it in perspective. Jackson did the job for half of one game, while Gordon's done it for four years.
While it's possible Jackson is one of the Conner-esque gems from the later rounds, it's more likely he simply had a good game. Chad Henne one time threw for 416 yards against the Patriots, Ryan Fitzpatrick looked like the second coming of Dan Marino for two games this year, Matt Flynn lit up the Lions for 480 yards in a game. Consistency over time separates ordinary pros from great players. Hell, Nick Foles had one of the all-time great QB seasons in 2013, and then looked like Joe Montana in the NFL playoffs last year. Matt Ryan had a top-10 all-time QB season in 2016 and might not be a top-10 NFL QB two years later. It's hard to find great players at any position who can perform at an elite level over the long haul. Maybe Case Keenum's and Foles' play from last year is a good case against extending Joe Flacco or Andy Dalton, but it's hardly an argument against Rivers, Luck or Brady.
Bottom line, NFL teams are complex systems. The play and pace of the offense, the down-in-and-down-out success rate affects not only the scoring output, but also the defense. Complex systems are not easily dissected and understood by looking at their component parts. What appears fungible might turn out to be crucial. What appears crucial (Wentz, last year, Phil Simms the year the Giants won with Jeff Hostetler, e.g.) might be fungible. That's not to say that on average losing a defensive tackle is the same as losing a QB, but "on average" is a fiction when it comes to looking at particular teams and players. It's tempting to use this fiction to come up with rules and give ourselves a sense of certainty, "if on average the QB is more important and the RB less, then we should *always* take a QB," but that certainty will be a false one.
The solution, in my opinion, is to embrace the uncertainty. What do we really know about each draft class? How can we evaluate the players and systems without being sure about what the right decision is? Perhaps when Bill Belichick who's only been to 10 Super Bowls, winning seven, as a defensive coordinator and head coach, takes a running back in the first round, it's not because he's a moron who doesn't grasp the fungibility at the position, but because he has a different idea about how Sony Michel's skills will fit into his team's plan. Belichick could be wrong, of course, but he's not obviously, absurdly idiotically ignorant of the basic math. It was certainly reasonable to think the Giants were wrong to take Barkley at the time, but to watch Barkley play and to think, "He makes no difference!" is just trolling at this point. Don't get me wrong, no one's a bigger troll than I am, but up your game at least.
Week 14 Trivia
Apropos of Zach Ertz getting to 93 receptions in 13 games Monday night, can you name all the 90-catch TEs in NFL history?
Guessing the Lines
|Game||My Line||Guessed Line||Actual Line||ML-AL||O/U||Actual O/U||MO-AO|
|Jaguars at Titans||3||3||4||-1||37||37.5||-0.5|
|Ravens at Chiefs||7||7.5||6.5||0.5||49||53||-4|
|Falcons at Packers||7.5||6.5||5.5||2||55||48.5||6.5|
|Panthers at Browns||3||2.5||-1.5||4.5||48||47||1|
|Colts at Texans||4.5||6||4.5||0||47||48.5||-1.5|
|Patriots at Dolphins||-5.5||-7||-8||2.5||49||47||2|
|Saints at Buccaneers||-7.5||-9||-8||0.5||55||56||-1|
|Giants at Redskins||-3||-1.5||1.5||-4.5||42.5||42||0.5|
|Jets at Bills||4.5||4||3.5||1||42||38.5||3.5|
|Bengals at Chargers||20.5||19.5||14||6.5||44||48||-4|
|Broncos at 49ers||-4.5||-6||-5.5||1||45||43.5||1.5|
|Steelers at Raiders||-9.5||-9.5||-11||1.5||52||51.5||0.5|
|Lions at Cardinals||0||2.5||-2.5||2.5||44||40.5||3.5|
|Eagles at Cowboys||3.5||4||4||-0.5||42||42||0|
|Rams at Bears||0||-1.5||-3||3||47||52.5||-5.5|
|Vikings at Seahawks||3.5||4||3.5||0||43||45||-2|
I was way off on the Chargers-Bengals - not just on my line (which is fine), but on what I guessed the real line would be. I'll definitely be laying the wood there. Panthers-Browns is a big disparity, too, though that one makes me nervous. I love the Giants facing Mark Sanchez and getting points too, and I suppose I'll be on the Bears as home dogs against the Rams.
Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind in Beating the Book.
Week 13 Observations:
• The Chargers looked dead to rights down 23-7 at the half with Ben Roethlisberger having years to throw and Philip Rivers under constant pressure. But the Chargers got a stop to start the half, Justin Jackson got it going on the ground, and the entire game flipped. So bizarre to see such an abrupt turnaround against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. In fact they had never blown a 14-point home lead in franchise history.
• If Conner (high ankle sprain) is out, rookie Jaylen Samuels (who qualifies at TE on Yahoo) is likely to start in his place. Le'Veon Bell's absence might burn the Steelers yet.
•Keenan Allen (19-14-148-1) was less efficient, but he caught almost everything thrown his way and converted a least a couple huge third downs.
•Nick Mullens (414 yards, 8.6 YPA) showed signs of life. He'll keep the job for at least another week, I'd have to imagine. Matt Breida hurt his ankle during pregame warmups, and someone named Jeff Wilson, Jr. went 9-8-73 as a receiver and 15-for-61 on the ground, though he lost a fumble.
•Russell Wilson attempted only 17 passes (10.2 YPA), four of which went for TDs. Why throw it when Chris Carson (13-for-69) and Rashaad Penny (7-65-1) are having such an easy time of it on the ground?
• One of my few ATS losses this week was on the Vikings. It's so rarely profitable to bet against the Patriots.
• I get that the Patriots scheme to take away the other team's best weapon, but it was bizarre that the Vikings were down 14 and attempting so many passes well short of the sticks. Why even schedule the game if you're not willing to try?
•James Develin scored two short TDs, killing value for most of New England's offense. James White (9-7-92) led the team in receiving, and Josh Gordon (3-3-58-1) scored the TD. Tom Brady (311 yards, 9.1 YPA) played well against a good defense, aside from a senseless late pick.
• Mahomes continued his assault on the record books with another four TDs, no picks, 295 yards passing and 55 rushing yards. He now has 41 TDs in 12 games, a 55-TD pace.
• Hill had no focus during the game. It was as though he had survivor guilt after seeing Hunt get cut, realizing had the timing been different, it might have been him.
•Travis Kelce went 13-12-168-2 and almost had a third TD but was touched with his knee down a split second before running the ball in for a third score.
•Spencer Ware did not do a great Hunt imitation with only 47 yards on 14 carries and one catch for five yards. Even if the Chiefs get the top seed in the AFC, I'd be surprised if they make it to the Super Bowl without Hunt. A great running back is as important to the defense as he is to the offense, the guy who helps chew clock and sustain drives, giving the unit a rest. You don't need him when the offense is rolling in good conditions, but in adverse ones, or when you're out of sync, a back like Hunt, who can break tackles and make plays as a receiver, is especially valuable. Damian Williams (5-for-38, two catches) is probably not the solution, either.
•Derek Carr (285 yards, 7.5 YPA, three TDs, no picks) played well, and it's looking more likely Jon Gruden sticks with him after this season. It's not insane as a short-term band-aid if there were no game-changing QBs early in the draft, but Carr is well below the threshold for a long-term solution.
•Jalen Richard fumbled, but went six for 95 on the ground and 4-3-31 through the air. He might be a star in a good offense. Jared Cook (8-7-100-1) led the team in receiving, while Jordy Nelson (11-10-97) caught a bunch of short passes.
• The Jets blew a big lead, but they only had the lead due to a pick six and long field goals. Marcus Mariota spread the ball around in the comeback and put up decent stats. I wouldn't read much into it.
•Antonio Callaway had one of the more bizarre (and frustrating if, like me, you started him) sequences in recent memory. He caught a 80-ish yard TD pass that was called back by a hold, then a few plays later broke free on 71-yard catch, only to fumble it inside the five.
•Baker Mayfield had a bad first half, but finished with 397 yards, 9.1 YPA and a TD to Rishard Higgins. Jarvis Landry (9-6-103) and Callaway (6-3-84) led the team, while the laugh was on David Njoku (6-3-8) owners. Nick Chubb (72 YFS) had a quiet game.
• The Jaguars shut out the high-flying Colts, showing good things happen when you bench your turnover-prone QB. In retrospect, what an ill-fit a mistake-prone player like Blake Bortles was for a team that needed an Alex Smith-like game manager.
•Andrew Luck (4.8 YPA), one pick, three sacks did nothing, Eric Ebron (16-10-81) lost a fumble and T.Y. Hilton (13-8-77) wasn't his usual efficient self. On the Jaguars side T.J. Yeldon (8-7-49) led the team with 65 YFS.
• The Panthers are now 6-6 and would be 5-7 but for Graham Gano's 61-yard last-second field goal over the Giants. Looking like a Bucs' quarterback, Cam Newton threw four picks and took four sacks, while Jameis Winston played a clean game (no picks) and led the team with a Newton-esque 48 yards.
•Christian McCaffrey went 10-for-106 on the ground and 10-9-55-1 through the air, making me look more foolish by the week for mocking him as a first-round pick. Curtis Samuel (11-6-88) led the team in receiving, while backup TE Ian Thomas (5-5-46) had a significant role after Greg Olsen's season-ending foot injury. D.J. Moore chipped in with 65 YFS.
• The Giants game was entertaining at least. Eli Manning (4.9 YPA) was bad again, throwing behind receivers, taking three sacks and throwing a pick directly to a Bears DBs. But he made a great throw in overtime that would have won the game, had Sterling Shepard held onto it, and he delivered a few short strikes on key third downs. Either way, it's long past time the Giants auditioned Kyle Lauletta who was active for the first time all year as the team's backup.
•Saquon Barkley left briefly with a minor shoulder injury, but finished with 24 carries for 125 yards and three catches for 21 more yards. This absurd run, setting up a field-goal at the end of the first half, was a key play in the game, as was his first carry in overtime.
•Odell Beckham threw a 49-yard TD pass on a gadget play. He actually looked like he was about to run the ball, but kept his eyes downfield and tossed it when he saw a wide-open receiver. He also went 9-3-35-1 in the passing game and made some key blocks for Barkley.
•Chase Daniel isn't good, but led the Bears back into the game with the help of an onside kick by repeatedly targeting Tarik Cohen (14-12-156), who also had 30 yards rushing and a short-TD throw of his own. Daniel kept fumbling snaps in overtime, though, eventually doing the Bears in. Allen Robinson went 9-5-79 including a huge catch over a defender's helmet to keep the Bears in the game.
•Josh Allen had a monster day with 135 rushing yards, 231 passing yards, two TDs and two picks. Given rushing yards count as at least double in most scoring systems, that's like passing for 501 yards.
• I had Zay Jones (9-4-67-2) on a couple benches. Last week, with Allen at QB, he put up a 1-0-0 line when I had him active. In fantasy, it's not only how much a player produces, but also that he produces when you were likely to use him.
• I don't understand how the Dolphins ever score points or win games. Everything they do seems like a fluke.
• I made the Packers 13.5-point favorites over the Cardinals at home and wanted to take them, but had to switch when I saw the line was 14. So crazy a team with a negative point differential was a double-digit favorite over anyone. It's also crazy I got credit for a win ATS despite thinking the team that lost outright should have been 13.5-point favorites. You don't have to be right, only less wrong than the market.
•Aaron Rodgers got only 4.7 YPA, David Johnson yielded both TDs to Chase Edmonds and Aaron Jones had only 3.3 YPC. Davante Adams (13-8-93-1) got his. He's not as good as he thinks in real life, but he's an elite fantasy receiver. Jimmy Graham (11-8-50) wasn't efficient, but at least he showed he could play through his thumb injury.
• Mike McCarthy was fired after the game, a move that was five years overdue. While his interim replacement, Joe Philbin, is hardly splitting the atom, I'd bet on a huge game from Aaron Rodgers and the receiving the corps against the Falcons next week.
•Todd Gurley tried to give away another TD at the end of Sunday's game – when you have 19, it seems like they grow on trees – but mercifully for Rams bettors (and Gurley owners) like me he punched it in a couple plays later. He finished with 132 yards and two TDs on the ground with 5-3-33 in the passing game.
• Despite leaving for a few minutes to get checked for a concussion, Lamar Jackson had another serviceable fantasy output with 75 yards and a score on the ground and 125 passing yards. He took two sacks and lost a fumble, though. Joe Flacco could be back next week against the Chiefs, but apparently John Harbaugh hasn't yet decided which QB would start.
•Mark Sanchez actually moved decently in the pocket, but almost every throw was a short dump off to the tight end or Chris Thompson. It'll be interesting to see if he starts next week against the Giants.
•Adrian Peterson's 90-yard run showed he's still fast. But he never had that much wiggle, and even what he had is gone. He's a straight-ahead only runner these days. Thompson looked rusty with a fumble he recovered and a drop. He had only three catches for 18 yards.
•Josh Doctson (5-3-51) is showing signs of life, but it might not be enough for him to keep his role next year.
•Carson Wentz (306 yards, two TDs, one pick, 7.8 YPA) played well enough, but he's still not looking down the field much. Golden Tate (7-7-85-1) looked like the Lions version finally, and Zach Ertz (10-9-83) almost always gets his. Nelson Agholor (8-4-56) chipped in too, Alshon Jeffery (5-3-31) not so much.