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Opinion: Making adjustments to the “running backs don’t matter” philosophy

How much do running backs matter?

Every offseason, the narrative wheel of the NFL turns again. Roster-building philosophies come into conflict on social media, oftentimes with analytics-based arguments squaring off against more traditional football tropes. Whether or not someone is a “franchise QB” is examined ad nauseam, comparisons and tiers run rampant, and the individual belief constructs of fan bases are swayed quickly by whether or not their favorite team made a move that aligns with their predispositions.

This is a content vacuum. When the games aren’t being played, the narrative switches to how the games SHOULD be played. When personnel moves are being made and rosters are being shaped, the conversation of how they SHOULD be shaped is allowed to shine much more than it is when snap reactions and immediate emotional fallout are added to the equation during the season.

One of the most polarizing topics in the roster management discussion is the running back position. The phrase “running backs don’t matter” is commonly used in the analytics community and the position has increasingly become devalued in the league both in terms of draft capital value and contract value. What this particular author is attempting to convey today is an opinion based on a set of guidelines for harmonious roster development.

Finding nuance in the running back conversation is like threading a pass between the deep half safety and the boundary corner into the honey hole against Cover 2: it requires a decisive and strong throw with the right timing and enough confidence to get it there cleanly. Josh Allen can make that throw and hopefully I can here as well. This article will have three components:

1. Clarify the argument and its terminology

2. Rebut it if necessary

3. Re-establish the philosophy based on my own opinions

Argument Terminology Clarification

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: The “running backs don’t matter” phrase is awful. It doesn’t clearly communicate what the movement is actually trying to push philosophically and leads to upfront miscommunication, setting the foundation for bad arguments that don’t actually get anyone anywhere.

Every position on the football field matters. Their value is not binary. It is a gradient from “most valuable” to “least valuable.” The important thing is to define the word VALUE. If you cannot clearly define this term, the remainder of your discussion is primed and ready for miscommunication leading to frustration, argument and what is ultimately worse: wasted time. For the purposes of this discussion, “value” is defined as “how probable it is that the variance in talent at a position will impact the winning and losing of football games over the course of a statistically significant period of time.”

It’s important to note the last part of that definition. Football is not a game based around POSSIBILITIES. It is a game based around PROBABILITIES. One position, regardless of how seemingly devalued, can lose you a singular football game. The long snapper could theoretically have a large impact on losing you a singular football game. His impact on that one game doesn’t mean long snappers are now to be valued at first-round picks and double digit APY contracts because the PROBABILITY is that the team could go years or decades without long snapper talent variance becoming an issue that costs the team a game.

One of the things that hurts football fans when it comes to assessing value is the same thing that contributes to football being such an incredibly popular sport: every snap matters. When every snap matters, one snap that goes really well or really badly can impact the team, and by extension its fan base, disproportionately. One pass that Duke Williams should have caught in the end zone might make a fan base clamor for a contested-catch receiver for an entire offseason because they rightfully recognize that the one play that went a different direction than they hoped could have changed the season for their team. The emotional effect that play had on the fan base and the POSSIBILITY of that play ending differently conflicts with the PROBABILITIES that are necessary to evaluate positional value when looking at a season (or seasons) as a whole.

The “running backs don’t matter” philosophy is actually a “the running game affects winning and losing very little and the running back position affects the running game very little, therefore running backs matter very little.” An entire article or podcast series could be written on the argument’s basis, but let’s boil it down to two principles:

1. YPA > YPC in almost all circumstances, therefore passing every down would theoretically gain more yards and therefore create more opportunities to score points than running every down.

Mitchell Trubisky was 32nd in the league in yards per attempt in 2019, throwing for 6.1 yards on average every time the ball left his hand. Raheem Mostert led the NFL in yards per carry by a running back with 5.6. This means, in a vacuum, having the worst starting quarterback in the league (in YPA) throwing the ball every single play would, OVER TIME, net your team more yards than running the best RB in the league (in YPC).

2. The passing game on offense and defense is the most correlative factor to winning and losing games and the Super Bowl and the quality of the quarterback is most correlated to a successful offensive passing game. Therefore, in roster management with finite resources, any resource spent on the running game (running backs in particular) cannot then be used on the passing game and is increasing the team’s likelihood of reaching the Super Bowl less than it would had that same resource been spent on the passing game.

Defense wins championships, right? Only partially. Passing and defending the pass gives your team a higher probability of winning a championship than running and stopping the run. A quick glance at the list of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks of the last 20 years will reveal a significant correlation between elite-level quarterback play and obtaining a Lombardi trophy. This is not to say that winning a championship cannot be done without a quarterback who was elite for the remainder of his career: Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Nick Foles, and Joe Flacco didn’t show elite-level quarterback play consistently in their careers but each has a ring. So again, it is POSSIBLE to win a Super Bowl without a QB who had an elite remainder of his career, but it’s not PROBABLE. Investing resources in an aspect of your team that, when maximized, gives you a higher PROBABILITY of winning a Super Bowl would then be a more efficient use of resources than investing those same limited resources in an aspect of your team that, if maximized, contributed to your team winning the big game at LOWER probability.

Add into this the fact that running backs are an extremely dependent position (we’ll go over this later), and investing in the position appears unwise in this argument.

Argument Rebuttal

Here’s why running backs matter despite those truths of resource management and net yardage effect of running and passing, and the appropriate correlative counter to each one of those arguments:

1. The goal on every play is not to gain the most amount of yardage, and how much yardage is gained on average in a vacuum on a particular type of play doesn’t matter when the sample size is one.

The goal of every play is to increase the probability of victory. Maximum average yardage in a vacuum may or may not accomplish that goal. Sometimes the goal of a play is to kill clock. Sometimes the goal of a play is to set up your kicker for a game-winning field goal at the hash where his probability of conversion is higher. On a third-and-one play in your own territory or fourth-and-one play right outside field goal range, it doesn’t matter what the average yard per attempt of a particular play is: it matters what the probability is that the play run will get the offense one yard. The entire advanced metric of “success rate” is built around the idea that achieving a goal on a given play differs based on down and distance and although it is not part of my argument here, it is important to note that the variability in the definition of “success” is relevant.

Running backs and the running game in general help the offense in those situations unquestionably more than the passing game. If those situations contribute to the team winning a game, than by the transitive property, running backs contribute to the team winning a game and have value.

2. Probabilities matter less in smaller sample sizes, an elite running game is a hedge against quarterback injury, and more talented players touching the ball is better than less talented players touching the ball.

The best team in the NBA usually wins the NBA championship. The seeding and series structure of the NBA limit fluke championships much more than the NFL’s one-game “survive and advance” playoff and Super Bowl structure. We already established that non-elite quarterbacks can win the Super Bowl. Typically they require the most Herculean of efforts from a mid- to low-tier QB (Foles, Flacco, Eli Manning) or a historically elite defense (Johnson, Dilfer) but it can be done.

The probabilities are also incredibly fragile with the physical nature of football leading every snap being an opportunity for injury for the game’s most important player. Expending resources to hedge against a QB injury is diversification of resources. If you have one stock that performs ON AVERAGE better than any other stock, that doesn’t mean it’s best to invest 100% of your money in that stock. No financial adviser in the world would recommend that because PERFORMANCE OVER TIME ISN’T ONLY ABOUT MAXIMIZING GAIN BUT ALSO MINIMIZING LOSS. The drop off in Super Bowl probability from “passing-focused team” to “running-focused team” is typically not going to be the same level of drop off that is realized from “starting franchise QB who is top 12 in the league” to “whoever backs that guy up.” Backup QB Nick Foles was able to put on a performance of a lifetime in Super Bowl LII, but the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have likely won the Super Bowl with their backup quarterbacks Tony Banks and former Buffalo Bill Rob Johnson as well because their teams had invested resources in a running game and a defense that would serve as a hedge against a starting quarterback injury.

As stated in rebuttal one above, the running game can perform valuable functions to a team that the passing game provides at a lower probability of success. When this running game happens, it’s likely a running back carrying the ball. Having a more talented player carry the ball on this play will net you more success overall than having a less talented player carrying the ball, therefore acquiring a more talented running back than the one currently on your roster has a net positive impact on the team.

Re-establishment of the argument

So running backs matter. We had to spend almost 1850 words just establishing that binary because of how poorly worded the philosophy and its hashtag are. The important thing here is that I’m not bitter.

How MUCH do they matter and how much value should an organization place on that position? THAT is the question that should have been posed from the beginning and something that I’m going to attempt to outline now. I will lay out my personal guidelines and beliefs for organizational investment in the position with the logic behind it:

1. Never draft a running back in the first round

Harsh absolute to be certain but, as outlined above, the running game IS less correlative to winning a Super Bowl than the passing game. Your first-round pick shouldn’t be spent on a run-stopping defensive tackle, punter, kicker, or two-down thumper linebacker for the same reasons. Your first-round pick should help move the needle in the most important aspect of the game, and although all the positions I mentioned have an effect on the game, they don’t have ENOUGH of an effect to warrant such a finite investment.

In addition, the fifth-year option attached to all NFL first-round contracts is one of the most valuable provisions associated with a draft pick in the initial frame. This fifth-year option essentially provides a team with a “mini franchise tag” to be able to make sure the player is compensated reasonably according to market value for their position while allowing the team to retain their rights (guaranteed for injury) for 20% longer than a player taken outside the first round in that draft class. The fifth-year option, when used on a position that not only experiences the most precipitous drop-off in production at time in their career that may happen before their rookie contract is up, but also takes the most hits of any position in football, represents a higher risk of being paid out to a player who is unable to play or is ineffective. This minimizes the value of the fifth-year option.

2. Never give a running back a notable second contract

Running backs are a year-to-year proposition in this league because of the reasons listed above. Notable second contracts like the ones given to Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson have guarantees that create inflexibility at a position where it is most important to be organizationally flexible. Although there are exceptions to this (I would argue LeSean McCoy actually did a fairly good job of living up to the contract he signed with Buffalo post-trade), the probability of it working out is infinitesimal and should not be chanced.

In addition, running backs are the most dependent position on the field. A great running back playing with a bad quarterback and a bad offensive line will net out to a less successful running game than a bad running back playing with a good quarterback and a good offensive line. This dependency creates with it replaceability, and the increase in production from a mid-round rookie to a second-contract RB is not probable to be equivalent to the increase in cost.

That’s it. Those two rules, when used in combination, can both protect your organization from inefficiency and also clear up the fog of war that surrounds the “running backs don’t matter” debate that rages on social media. So go forth! Draft a running back in the second round! Sign a street free agent at the position to solidify your depth for a low-cost contract!

Running backs matter, but as we recognize they matter less than other positions, let’s not go overboard.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan for Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter @BruceExclusive and look for episodes of “The Nick & Nolan Show’ every week on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast channel!