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Fantasy Running Backs and Team Passing Efficiency

Posted by Jason Lisk on August 27, 2008

How important is a good passing game to a running back for fantasy football purposes? Do you want the guy that is a cog in a good offense, or the guy that is the offense?

To check how important the team's passing game is on the fantasy production of the running back, I went through the last twenty years (1988-2007) and found every running back who finished at least 80 fantasy points over baseline (where baseline equals the 24th highest scoring back) in a non-point per reception league (1 point for every 10 rushing and receiving yards; 6 points per touchdown). That produced 138 running back seasons--an average of 6.9 per season. While there has been fluctuation from season to season regarding how many backs have reached that benchmark, from a low of three (1990-1991) to a high of nine (1989, 1998, 2000, 2002 & 2003), I think it is a pretty good measuring stick for elite running backs in a given season.

I then took that list of 138 players and found the team rank in the season in question in adjusted net passing yards per attempt (ANYPA). ANYPA incorporates both sacks and interceptions into the efficiency number. For the purposes of this post, it does a good job of measuring how efficient a passing offense was in creating opportunities for the running back, as a team with a decent yards per attempt, but high interception and sack totals, is going to take the ball out of the hands of the running back by surrendering possession or placing the team in poor running situations.

Once I found the ANYPA rank for each team that had a running back finish with at least 80 fantasy points over baseline, I sorted those backs into tiers based on their relative ranking, and the league size at the time (since there were 28 teams in 1988, but 32 now). The top three passing offenses by ANYPA are tier 1 in the chart below. Each subsequent tier represents approximately the next 10th percentile (rounded to the nearest whole number).

Before getting to the charts, however, I guess I should point out that I'm not making value judgments about the specific quarterbacks that were on these teams; I'm only going by the end result of passing rank. In some situations, the back may be influencing the team passing efficiency numbers by allowing big plays in the passing game due to team's overplaying to stop the back, in others, the back may be the beneficiary of a great offensive cast. In many cases, it's probably a little of both. For example, if I told you that Terry Allen finished first in fantasy points in 1996 with Gus Frerotte as his quarterback, and Ricky Watters finished third with Ty Detmer at quarterback, your gut reaction, without going back and looking at the numbers, is probably that they didn't have very good passing teams. By the numbers, though, Washington was actually the #1 team in ANYPA in 1996, and Philadelphia ranked #11. Let's go ahead and get the first chart, showing how many backs played for a team that had a passing offense in each tier, and how many fantasy points the top backs in each tier averaged:

Tm Rank			         No.	Avg. FP
1st Tier			34	287.6
2nd Tier			14	259.6
3rd Tier			17	270.3
4th Tier			20	247.0
5th Tier			13	256.0
6th Tier			18	260.9
7th Tier			10	256.8
8th Tier			7	253.0
9&10 Tier			5	259.2

So, what do we see here? The dominance of the top tier jumps out at me. Over half of the teams that finished as a top three passing offense produced an elite fantasy running back, and they averaged more fantasy points than the other groups. In fact, last year was the only season in this span where none of the top backs were from one of the top three passing offenses (Marion Barber of Dallas just missed the cut). The reasons for this are likely three fold. First, if the back plays a role in the receiving game, his numbers are going to be directly tied to the passing game and he will generate a lot of points from receiving numbers. Second, an elite passing offense will produce a lot of first downs, which means more opportunities for the back over the course of a game. Third, and an extension of the second point, lots of first downs are going to result in a healthy dose of red zone opportunities and rushing touchdowns scored.

If you can predict which teams are going to finish at the top of the league in passing efficiency, you have a pretty good chance at identifying a top level fantasy running back. But I guess therein lies the rub. If you would have known that Washington was going to go from 20th in 1995 in pass efficiency, when Terry Allen put up a healthy but unspectacular 220 fantasy points, to 1st in 1996, you would have projected Allen to have a monster year. If you had your crystal ball and saw that a Peyton Manning, in his second year, and an unknown Kurt Warner were going to lead the two most efficient passing attacks in the league in 1999, you would have foreseen that Faulk and James would be in for huge years.

Notably, after the top tier, though, there doesn't seem to be much benefit in having a very good passing offense versus a near-average one, as the number of backs from tiers 2-6 are fluctuating and fairly even, as are the average points scored. The numbers begin to drop dramatically, though, as we move from near average to the bad passing offenses. Only 15.9% (22 of 138) of the top fantasy running backs came from the bottom 40% of passing efficiency teams. Only five backs finished with at least 80 points over baseline while playing for a team that finished in the bottom 20% of teams in pass efficiency. This next chart lists those twenty-two backs in the bottom four tiers. Well, actually, its seventeen backs, as five of them appear twice.

Player			        Year	Team Rk	Fant. Points
Herschel Walker			1988	18	244
Neal Anderson			1989	18	261
Marshall Faulk			1994	19	252
Herschel Walker			1992	20	195
Terry Allen			1995	20	220
LaDainian Tomlinson		2002	20	307
Ricky Williams			2003	20	232
Eric Dickerson			1988	21	294
Jerome Bettis			1993	21	209
Curtis Martin			1995	22	265
Ricky Watters			2000	22	240
LaDainian Tomlinson		2003	22	345
Frank Gore			2006	22	272
Charlie Garner			1999	23	212
Chris Warren			1995	24	255
Barry Sanders			1996	24	236
Tiki Barber			2004	24	300
Barry Sanders			1989	25	259
Chris Warren			1994	25	253
Ricky Watters			1995	28	243
Corey Dillon			2001	30	230
Jamal Lewis			2003	30	311

It's a pretty good list of players who have managed a top running back season while playing with a below average passing offense. Which brings me to the year after.

While running backs on elite passing offenses are good bets to finish as top fantasy backs, if you can predict who the elite passing offenses will be, its actually those minority of backs who managed top seasons with bad passing offenses that hold their value the best the next season. This final chart shows us what each tier averaged the next season, what the average change was, and also lists the percentage of backs in each group that played in at least 15 games, the percentage that ended up playing in 8 or fewer games and the Fantasy Points per Game Average the next season, which sets aside the injury issue and just looks at the productivity when each group did play.

Team Rank		Yr N	Yr N+1	Diff	      15+ Games         8 or Fewer    FP/G, Yr N+1
1st Tier		287.6	228.0	-59.6		0.588		0.147		16.8
2nd Tier		262.8	197.2	-65.6		0.750		0.167		14.3
3rd Tier		272.4	174.6	-97.8		0.438		0.188		14.0
4th Tier		248.4	174.7	-73.7		0.684		0.158		13.1
5th Tier		253.8	203.3	-50.5		0.417		0.083		15.7
6th Tier		260.4	198.5	-61.9		0.667		0.000		14.9
7th Tier		259.6	219.3	-40.3		0.889		0.111		15.2
8th Tier		253.0	230.6	-22.4		0.857		0.000		14.8
Bottom		        259.2	230.0	-29.2		0.800		0.000		15.1

Notice how much healthier the backs on these bad passing offenses were the following season. The first reaction might be that it is random, and given the sample sizes, I'm not sure I can dissuade you if that is where you are inclined to lean. I do, however, think there are legitimate reasons why the injury rates are higher for the backs in the groups at or above league average in passing efficiency the season after, some of which relate to my posts on Running Back Overuse and Injury, and how that post might relate to Chase's post last year entitled If Your Running Back Has Twenty Carries, You Just Might Win.". I'll probably have more support to add to that belief in a future post during the season, but I don't want to dwell on that tangent, so let's move on to a quick look at what this all might mean for this season, by discussing some of the fantasy running backs you will be considering at your draft.

I am not sure this has much bearing on TOMLINSON or WESTBROOK, as I think Father Time, and holding him off with a stiff arm for another season or two, are both more important in determining where these two 29 year olds finish. Both have proven they can produce in average offenses, or in Tomlinson's case, below average ones. CLINTON PORTIS is another back who has turned in top seasons on middling passing teams. ADRIAN PETERSON, the pride of every Oklahoman (Ed. Note: GRRRRRRRR!), actually played on the team that finished just behind San Diego and Philadelphia in passing efficiency. I think he has the talent to produce a good fantasy season even if the passing game does not improve, but his upside and potential to move into the top spot is dependent on some progress from Tarvaris Jackson.

JOSEPH ADDAI and MARION BARBER's values are, in my opinion, dependent on their respective passing offenses maintaining elite status. Barber is a red zone machine, but needs an offense that will give him lots of opportunities there. If that happens, he could be a fantasy star in 2008. Addai's value is likely tied to Manning's health.

STEVEN JACKSON and FRANK GORE both had excellent seasons in 2006, followed by disappointments in 2007 when they played with injuries and their respective offenses regressed. The difference is that Gore did it in 2006 on a below average passing offense, and the list of other backs who accomplished that is pretty impressive. If you are considering Jackson, you should be assessing how likely you think that the Rams will bounce back offensively in 2008 in the passing game. For Gore, the question comes down to whether you think Martz can work a minor miracle with J.T. O'Sullivan and turn in an average passing year. Gore has shown he can produce with a below average offense (just not an awful one), so he could be a fantasy beast if Martz can pull that rabbit out of the hat.

If you are considering LARRY JOHNSON or MARSHAWN LYNCH or WILLIS MCGAHEE with an early pick, I think you should be asking yourself, "Do I think Brodie Croyle/Trent Edwards/whomever is starting for the Ravens can be near league average as a starter?" If you do, then go for it. If not, I might look elsewhere.

RYAN GRANT put up big numbers in half a season as the starter, but was on one of the top passing offenses last year. Your outlook on how well Rodgers will or will not do replacing Favre is a legitimate consideration in assessing Grant's prospects for 2008. Is it any surprise that JAMAL LEWIS experienced a revival when he played on a team with a breakout passing performance? His value is largely tied to which direction that passing game goes in 2008. It seems many have soured on REGGIE BUSH and LAURENCE MARONEY. I can't disagree that they have question marks. But if you think that the Patriots and Saints will be among the top passing offenses in 2008, then they have significant upside as well. Guys like Dalton Hilliard, Greg Bell, and Napolean Kaufman put up very good seasons playing in top passing offenses, so these two are certainly capable so long as another back doesn't vulture most of the touchdowns.