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East Coast Offense: Does the Running Game Matter Anymore?

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

The NFL Is a Passing League

As if there were any doubt, Knowshon Moreno had 225 yards on 37 carries (6.1 YPC), but the Pats still came all the way back from a 24-0 deficit and won. Likewise, Brandon Jacobs and Andre Brown combined for 30 carries and 202 yards (6.7 YPC), and the Giants also lost. It's hard to win without being the better passing team in today's NFL.

This has implications for fantasy, too. While roughly half the top-12 running backs have panned out, almost all of the early-round receivers and tight ends have. (Peter Schoenke was actually right about this, it seems - at least for 2013). Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas were as advertised, while Julio Jones was arguably the best of the bunch before getting hurt.

Similarly, the top-two tight ends, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski have been monsters, and Vernon Davis has also been good, especially considering he missed a game. In short, among the WRs, TEs and RBs taken in the first two rounds, the most significant busts have been running backs, a few of whom were taken in the first half of the first round (Doug Martin, Arian Foster, C.J. Spiller).

This isn't anything new, but the arguments for taking running backs early centered around their greater upside and greater scarcity. This season, however, the top backs are not separating themselves from receivers all that much. Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson lead the position with 11 scores each, while Jamaal Charles and Knowshon Moreno have 10. But Calvin Johnson also has 11 scores (despite missing a game), Demaryius Thomas has 10 and Brandon Marshall and Wes Welker have nine apiece. There are four 1,000-yard receivers, but only one 1,000-yard back (LeSean McCoy), though there are seven backs with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage. In PPR that's offset by receptions, but even in non-PPR, a few hundred extra yards and maybe an extra score was not worth the higher pick and the significantly greater chance for a disaster season. This isn't LaDainian Tomlinson, Priest Holmes and Shaun Alexander scoring 25-plus and single-handedly sending you to the playoffs.

Moreover, running backs used to be scarce, but when you can get decent production from Danny Woodhead, Fred Jackson, Rashad Jennings or Pierre Thomas any given week, the drop-off isn't as severe as it once was if you didn't have a star.

While the top-six receivers heading into the year might have been the best and deepest top-six ever, the position's high-output depth extends well beyond them: Jordy Nelson with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, Andre Johnson, Josh Gordon, Welker, Antonio Brown, Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon have all averaged more than 10 fantasy points per game in non-PPR. And there are more on the way - Michael Floyd, Keenan Allen, Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Blackmon (if he can stay out of trouble) and Michael Crabtree (once he gets healthy) could all be monsters in 2014, as could speedsters Tavon Austin and T.Y. Hilton.

That cuts both ways of course - if receivers are plentiful, why not lock down a top RB and wait on them? Because you can only "lock down" a top RB if by that you mean draft one with a 50-percent chance of being a bust. And while receiver is deep, it's not 36 deep, so in a 3-WR league, the top options won't be there if you wait. If 2014 plays out like 2013 (and while it might not, the NFL's passing tendencies are probably here to stay), it makes sense to take two WR and a top TE with your first three picks, or even three (or four) WR. In fact, in a 14-team non-PPR mock draft for the RotoWire magazine, I took five. And that team would be contending.

The New NFL Personal Foul Rules Are Stupid. Actually the Old Ones Are Too.

While I believe the NFL should do what it can to make the game safer, its new rules are not working especially well. And they're bad for the game.

Consider there were only 25 ACL injuries leading to IR trips in 2011, 32 in 2012 and a whopping 30 through Week 7 this year. Concussions are down - 88 through Week 11 as opposed to 109 at that point last year, but I'm not sure if those include season-ending neck injuries like those suffered by Ahmad Bradshaw, David Wilson and Jermichael Finley among others. Bottom line, at best it could be said the emphasis on restricting helmet-to-helmet contact has reduced concussions by 20 percent and led to more ACL tears (due to defenders aiming lower), though both deviations could simply be due to variance.

The trade-off for this trade-off is another set of arbitrary and unreviewable calls for referees to get wrong, in addition to pass interference, holding and the pre-existing types of personal fouls (more on those in a minute).

For example, on Sunday the Rams Michael Brockers cleanly hit Bears QB Josh McCown in the midsection, but the refs called a roughing-the-passer penalty that resulted in a Bears touchdown. Whereas William Gay's hit on Browns QB Jason Campbell's facemask that caused a fumble and was returned to the 4-yard line, (essentially sealing a 13-3 game) was not flagged.

At the very least, these plays should be reviewable on replay, but even reviewed calls (like Matt Ryan's first quarter touchdown pass that was overturned Thursday) often come out wrong, in part because the referee looking at the play is reviewing his own decision, and in part because the rules are increasingly illogical and divorced from our common-sense understanding of football. The bizarre requirements for completing a catch come to mind - who knew we'd all been doing it wrong since grade-school recess?

Even worse is the rule against hitting a "defenseless receiver." If the ball is in the air, and the receiver has to go up and get it, of course he's defenseless! What's the DB supposed to do, let him catch the ball until he regains solid footing, possession and the ability to protect himself? I always thought a safety's central job description was to wait until the first instant the receiver and the ball make contact and jar him with enough force to prevent him from catching it. Because a receiver trying to make a catch is usually defenseless, the call ends up depending on how hard the otherwise clean hit was. If the safety lays him out, it's a foul; if he merely jostles him, it's no foul. This inverts the basic premise of the safety's job - the guy who hits the least hard is now doing it correctly. You have to feel sorry for the referees tasked with enforcing this non-football football. Errors and arbitrariness are virtually guaranteed.

Another senseless part of the rulebook - and this has always been the case - is how fouls that don't affect the play still result in first downs and penalty yards. (As opposed to holding that enabled the quarterback more time to get the pass off, or pass interference that stopped the receiver from catching the ball - those absolutely should affect the down and distance).

For example, Antrel Rolle hit a ball carrier maybe three-inches into the out-of-bounds line Sunday, and he got a 15-yard penalty. Roughing-the-passer calls result in automatic first downs even if the contact occurred three seconds after the quarterback released the ball. This is an incredibly stupid policy that makes games turn on garbage rather than the merit of the teams.

I get that we want to deter late hits, but why do it in a way that compromises the outcome of the game? Do you really want to see a playoff matchup between two great teams decided because some journeyman injury fill-in couldn't stop himself from glancing the QB's facemask with his arm or didn't realize the quarterback had already released the ball? The announcers* - who are often dense beyond belief - love this crap. They'll say: "You can't take a penalty like that, you have to be disciplined!" about the special teamer who got punched in the face, but was the guy caught retaliating. They act like irrelevant technicalities driving outcomes are a feature, not a bug.

*These are the same imbeciles who act like Peyton Manning snapping the ball when the 12th defender has one toe still on the field is the crowning achievement of Western civilization.

Instead, fine the player, kick him out of the game, suspend him for a month without pay, chop off his hand, whatever you deem a proper punishment/deterrent to be. But games should never be determined on fouls that in no way affect the play.

All the Wrong Moves

In our 16-team Steak League, I'm in a tight battle with Jeff Erickson to avoid the indignity of buying a steak for someone at our annual January dinner. It's all about total points, and entering Week 12, I was up by only 12 (and this despite his getting Keenan Allen six weeks ago for $10 when I bid $23 because my bid didn't go through due to my putting it in the wrong bid-tree on the stupid software. I'll let this go some time in 2016.) So it's tight, and I had several important lineup decisions last week. First, Matt Ryan or Alex Smith? I had a Smith hunch, but I consulted industry-consensus rankings (starting with ours), and Ryan was almost universally higher at home against the Saints.

I went with Ryan, and of course, he failed to throw a touchdown. Actually, I should say he did throw a touchdown, but the call was reversed for no reason and without explanation. What's worse, Steven Jackson (who Erickson started) got the carry from the half-yard line and scored, making that a 10-point swing. Overall, the Ryan over Smith move cost me 11 points.

I also had to choose between a banged up Daryl Smith vs. James Laurinaitis (whom I picked up in case Smith couldn't go), and I chose Smith. Laurinaitis outcored him seven to six.

Next up, DeMarco Murray vs. Chris Ivory in my second RB slot. I thought the Giants would roll, while NYJ-BAL would be close, and in any event, Dallas routinely abandons the run early in games. Verdict: Ivory sprained his ankle, and Murray outscored him by 9.1 points.

Last and possibly worst, I benched Sheldon Richardson who's been a top defensive lineman this year (7th overall) for Jason Pierre-Paul whose pick-six generously contributed to my bench the week prior. Pierre-Paul probably shouldn't have even suited up given how ineffective he was with a sore shoulder. That move cost me 9.5 points.

There was also my pickup of Jarius Wright off waivers as my No. 3 wideout who scored zero. (Remember, I should have Keenan Allen there).

All told, not including the Allen-Wright situation, I left about 30.5 points on my bench.

Incidentally, I'm up 39 now on Erickson because I had Josh Gordon and Knowshon Moreno going among others. But I could have left him in the dust and been pushing to be an eater (rather than a self-buyer) had I not botched every decision.

Week 12 Observations

There was a lot of junk in the Giants-Cowboys game, starting with Victor Cruz losing a fumble (that Dallas returned for a TD) on a play that probably should have been blown dead, but the game was tied at 21 with a few minutes left, and Tony Romo got it done down the stretch against New York's defense.

The Giants might have been ahead by four instead of tied had they not called a draw play on third and goal from the 10. At least the Giants beat writers called them out on it. It turns out the Giants had two options on that play, and Eli Manning read the defense and called the run. On 3rd-and-5 maybe that would have made sense, but from the 10, he should have called time out.

That the Pats were down 24-0 and beat the Broncos is hard to believe. But aside from the game-tying drive (against the wind) Peyton Manning played an abysmal game, something you occasionally see from Eli, but almost never from him. Even with the final drive, Manning had only 4.2 YPA and 150 yards, and it's an open question how he'll fare in the playoffs given he no longer plays his home games in a dome. At this point, I'd take Drew Brees ahead of Manning the rest of the way, and shockingly it's a close call between Manning and Brady. This is about four weeks after the consensus was to rank Andy Dalton ahead of Brady.

Speaking of which, Brady overcame a rocky start to finish with 344 yards, three TDs and no picks, though it took him 50 passes (6.9 YPA) to get there. It's now been three strong games with his weapons intact, so we can safely forget about the season's first half.

Incidentally, it doesn't seem like Manning and Brady like each other very much - witness the perfunctory handshake. That's a good thing - at least until after they retire. Athletes should be like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird - enemies and rivals until it's all over, at which point they're free to be friends. Otherwise, the competition loses some intensity.

Mike McCarthy's decision to kick the field goal on 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line in overtime was laughably bad. If they convert, it's game over, and if they don't convert, they're still a heavy favorite to win with the game going to sudden death, and Minnesota starting on the 2. After the field-goal, they were only slightly better off than had they gotten stuffed, and they gave up the 50/50 chance to win outright. For the math behind this, click here.

Perhaps more laughable was Leslie Frazier's decision to punt on 4th-and-5 from his own 44 with 2:05 left in overtime. You're 2-8 and playing for the tie?

Jamaal Charles finally looked like the player we saw last year, showing his typical quickness and burst. Barring a known injury, we should be skeptical of assuming declines in performance among established players in their prime are indicative of some new and lower baseline.

The 49ers sure do know how to destroy doormats. RGIII had a tough matchup, but he looked lost on Monday night. If he doesn't improve substantially before the end of the year, he'll come at a steep discount in 2014.

The Colts were exposed in Arizona. The defense isn't very good, and Andrew Luck's options are below average. Coby Fleener's okay, and T.Y. Hilton is a small, but dynamic outside threat, and that's about it. Trent Richardson getting stuffed on 4th-and-1 down four scores was an apt finish to the Indy's day, though it did likely cost me some much-needed Fleener garbage-time points.

Any back against the Bears defense is as good as Adrian Peterson against anyone else. Benny Cunningham, Brandon Jacobs, it doesn't really matter. Incidentally, Peterson gets the Bears at home this week.

I've ripped on the overrated Matt Ryan a lot in this space (and others), but he played a fantastic game against the Saints, throwing on the move, escaping pressure, not making mistakes. A fumble (and a key third-down drop) by rookie Darius Johnson cost Atlanta the game.

Along those lines I've also ripped on Sean Payton over the years for not giving more work to the great Pierre Thomas. But Payton won a Super Bowl in 2009, and Thomas is still healthy in 2013 and a key factor in the offense. (He was the game's MVP Thursday). Had Payton used the injury-prone Thomas as much as I'd have liked, he's probably not playing at this level (if at all) for the Saints right now.

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