Examining Why Elite Running Backs Are Rare in Fantasy Football

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistOctober 19, 2012

Oct 14, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans running back Arian Foster (23) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers in the third quarter at Reliant Stadium. The Packers defeated the Texans 42-24. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE

Though the days are over where drafting a running back in the first round was a must, the position is still easily the most vital for fantasy owners.

The reason for that is there are so few elite running backs that finding one is almost a yearly guarantee to a playoff berth. 

Unfortunately for fantasy owners, the evolution of the position makes finding an elite fantasy back a nearly impossible task. Coming into Week 7, there are just three running backs among the Top 25 fantasy scorers, according to ESPN's standard scoring. 

For those like myself who once stuck to the steadfast "running back-running back" rule when drafting a team, this change has been disconcerting. 

But what has happened in the NFL to make elite running backs such an endangered species?

Well, to examine why elite fantasy backs are so hard to find, we must first expose the biggest myth floating around the NFL.


The Myth: Teams are Passing the Ball More


While it would be easy to say that offenses have become unbearably pass-heavy and negated the run, the statistics show that simply is not the case.

In fact, since fantasy has entered into the mainstream (let's conservatively say the past 10 years), pass rates have stayed relatively the same. 

Obviously, there has been some fluctuation, but in 2002 (year one of "mainstream" fantasy), teams passed the ball 56.7 percent of the time. That figure was less than a half-percentage point higher in 2011, coming in at 57.1 percent.

Nonetheless, it's easy to take a look at two relatively similar years and create a correlation.

What we need to do is take an even more representative sample size to make the figures statistically significant.

Taking three-year sample sizes from 2009-2011, teams passed the ball on 56.8 percent of offensive possessions. From 2002-2004? 55.46 percent.

What does that 1.34 percentage increase mean? Over the course of the season, assuming that a team runs about 64 plays per game (the median in 2011), an average team from 2009-2011 ran the ball 13.7 fewer times over the course of an entire season than in 2002-2004.

So the next time your buddy tries to tell you running backs are worthless because teams pass too much, just refer him here.

(Note: All stats are courtesy of ColdHardFootballFacts.com)


Now that we've exposed the biggest myth of fantasy, here is a look at a couple of actual reasons why elite running backs are such treasured possessions.


The Facts

Teams Use Running Backs Differently, Meaning Fewer Opportunities

Though it's a falsehood that the NFL has become overrun with the pass, how teams use the running back has changed drastically.

Most notable among those changes is the slow extinction of the workhorse back.

In 2002, there were a whopping 19 running backs with more than 250 carries, meaning well over half of the league had a running back we'd consider worthy of a start in today's fantasy atmosphere.

From that point, that number has been in a rapid decline as the evolution of offensive football has led to fewer backs getting consistent opportunities.

Last season saw 12 running backs hit the 250-carry mark, but that was the highest figure since 2008.

Instead of the workhorse, teams have increasingly become reliant on employing either a two-back system or utilizing specialist roles for specific downs.

Case in point: There were 54 ball carriers to get 75 or more carries in 2002. Last season, that figure was 67, an increase of nearly 20 percent. 

With other players usurping opportunities, both rushing yards and touchdowns are bound to go down, which decreases the value of a position as a whole. 


Nosedive in Touchdown Runs

Easily the biggest reason behind the decrease in fantasy points from running backs is the fact teams simply aren't running for touchdowns as much anymore. 

From 2002, there were a whopping 24 running backs that scored seven or more touchdowns. That figure was all the way down to 16 last season and is looking like it may be even lower in 2012.

Expanding on that figure, there were also 24 running backs to score 12 or more touchdowns from 2002-2004, which also decreased to 16 from 2009-2011.

As fantasy owners know, without touchdowns, value declines exponentially for running backs. 

No matter how many rushing yards you get, the end zone is the place where true fantasy value is realized. After all, fantasy football may be the only place where two one-yard touchdown runs are more valuable than 120 yards rushing.

All of these factors put together making finding an elite back all the more important. With one, you're almost guaranteed to make the playoffs and could contend for a league championship.

It's just unfortunate that outside of Arian Foster and Ray Rice, you're going to have an awfully difficult time finding one this season.


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