Have we reached a point where running backs are undervalued by the NFL?
The concept of value in pro sports drives a lot of analysis by both league insiders and outsiders. And all the value studies in the NFL over the last four years or so point to one conclusion: passing efficiency matters. It determines who wins and loses. Be able to throw the football and stop your opponent from doing the same. That is how you win in the NFL. How much rushing efficiency still matters in the NFL is up for debate.
Here’s the big thing though: I can make a very sound argument that rushing efficiency (although NOT run defense efficiency) is undervalued in the NFL, and by league observers. There is no question that if you want to win in the most conventional way possible, it is no longer viable to try and “out tough” your opponent. You need to be able to beat your opponent through the air. And there’s no question that if you look at the very best NFL teams, they all can control the skies on Sunday.
The fundamental problem is that analysts (armchair analysts in particular) spend far too much time analyzing the top of the league compared to the rest. This creates a hindsight bias. We conclude that passing and quarterback play is the only way to win games because we watch the regular season and the playoffs, look at the results, and treat the teams that come out at the top as the ideal for building a roster. When we do that, we succumb to that hindsight and don’t ask important questions that may be far more relevant to the great majority of NFL teams.
The New York Giants have a roster that is likely much closer to league-average than to what the Green Bay Packers or New Orleans Saints or even Houston Texans throw out there on a week to week basis. They have also been to the playoffs 5 out of 8 seasons in a long tenure by head coach Tom Coughlin and super bowl champion quarterback Eli Manning. No one would ever argue after the team’s second super bowl in five seasons that they aren’t competitive with the very best teams in the league. But when you attribute that competitive nature to the development of Eli Manning and the team’s pass rush: two major keys in their success, and point out that the Giants were last in total rushing in 2011, we are all committing hindsight bias by affirming the Giants as the gold standard of NFL teams because they beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl when they can go 0-4 in November and early December, and then lose to the Redskins by two touchdowns at home two weeks later.
The Giants didn’t struggle so much because they weren’t trying or lacked an intangible that they later found. They lost because they were banged up and were really average in the depth department. Obviously their inability to run the ball and play good defense for most of the season did not hurt them in the playoffs, but that ignores that the Giants really did run the ball well and play exceptional defense in the playoffs.
Meanwhile the Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, and to a lesser extent, the Baltimore Ravens, could hardly throw the ball at all, but all performed well enough to win a playoff game. Quarterbacks who failed to win a playoff game this year: Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Josh Freeman, Matthew Stafford, Michael Vick, Tony Romo, and league MVP Aaron Rodgers. Even adding in Eli Manning’s 4 playoff wins, Tom Brady’s 2, and Drew Brees’ 1, the average playoff games won by a top ten starting QB in this league was still under one in 2011. It’s awful math, but knowing that 1/3 of playoff games were won by the Flaccos, Smiths, Tebows, and TJ Yates’ of the world points away from the idea that the NFL has become more of a quarterback league than it was before (quarterbacks always mattered). Again, the reason that you believed that 2011 was some sort of year of the quarterback was not the inflated passing environment, but because of hindsight bias.
There’s no question that the burden on a rusher to be as valuable to his team as even an average quarterback is far higher than for a receiver or even a pass rusher, and there are just a handful of guys on this league that make the rushing attack a viable alternative to a strong, efficient passing game. You need to have an Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, LeSean McCoy or an Arian Foster, and perhaps a DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart, Fred Jackson, Ryan Mathews, Marshawn Lynch, Chris Johnson, Michael Turner, Frank Gore, Jamaal Charles, Steven Jackson, or Darren McFadden. That’s 6 or 7 teams for whom the rushing attack is a viable way to win football games and another 6 or 7 teams who have reason to believe they can run to win.
I mean, that’s almost half the league. Why would we buy the premise that the NFL is a passing league now if half the league can win by either rushing or passing?
Well, I think we have to look back at hindsight bias, but also that we’re talking about a group that produced four playoff teams. But what if we extend the definition of rusher to include quarterbacks who have a rushing element in their game: that adds the 2010 Philadelphia Eagles and 2011 Denver Broncos, and I’m not sure if there’s anyone betting against the 2012 Carolina Panthers right now, not to mention that the team that drafts Robert Griffin III is going to have a pretty sizable playoff bandwagon as well.
So while 2011 has been branded the year of the quarterback, it might have been the year that teams without a conventional quarterback started to overcome the effects of the last three years when they were actually marginalized, to really threaten the NFL playoff field to the point where the Patriots and Giants reached the big game because of errors by the opponent special teams unit. And it might go down as the year where we finally went back to accepting that the running back is still the second most important player on the field after the quarterback.
If four teams won playoff games without a conventional performer at quarterback, how many teams won without a go to running back? The Patriots and Giants did it, sure, but who else. Perhaps the Broncos, with their stable of backs led by Tim Tebow, their quarterback. The Packers didn’t have any sort of a running game down the stretch. And the Lions never bothered with a running game this year, after losing their first and second string runners to injury. Finally the Steelers made the playoffs in spite of Rashard Mendenhall’s injury.
For one year at least, it was proportional. Given that 2/3rds of the playoff games were won by three quarterbacks, it makes sense that less than two thirds (but more than half) of playoff spots were won by the strongest running games.
So let’s move this forward: where should Trent Richardson go in the draft? I am thinking that the latest he should go is 6th. I think few would argue that Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin offer more value to a team. Then I think with elite blocking talents like G David DeCastro and T Matt Kalil, you’re talking about guys who won’t be available later in the draft. Same with shutdown CB prospect Mo Claiborne. At least with Richardson, there are franchise running backs in Lamar Miller and David Wilson who could at least threaten Richardson for best in the class.
But who are you making a case for beyond that? Justin Blackmon? Michael Brockers? Quintin Coples? The same logic you would use to support the idea that the quarterback drives teams to wins could be used to say the running back does the same thing, especially because the running back is a huge part of the modern passing game as well as the only person who has his performance evaluated in the running game.
Running backs have depressed value because of the rate of injury, which is why they don’t sign contracts proportional to their value to a team. That and the fact that themselves aren’t difficult to replace. Well, extrapolate that logic a bit and quarterbacks in this league become not worth their contracts and easy to replace. More difficult to injure/less likely to miss time? Sure, that matters. A more direct correlation to wins and losses? Sure. Irreplaceable? There’s a free agent market, is there not? You lose Alex Smith to someone else, and you can sign Chad Henne the next day.
Running backs as a group probably aren’t significantly undervalued. There are bad running backs who get benched for performance. Just like there are quarterbacks who get benched for performance. But the best ones — which is what Alabama’s Trent Richardson represents — are very undervalued. Too undervalued to evade analytic note, in my opinion.