Nick Chubb rushed 15 times inside the 5-yard line for the Browns last season. He lost a total of 14 yards on those carries while scoring just two touchdowns.
Losing about two-and-a-half feet per carry when your team is counting on you to punch in a touchdown is not good, of course. And while his numbers were especially awful, Chubb wasn't alone: Leonard Fournette, Saquon Barkley and other workhorse runners struggled to produce short touchdowns last year. That's because big backs can break your heart at the goal line, whether in fantasy football or the real thing.
Chubb rushed for 1,494 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He has averaged 5.1 yards per carry over his two-year NFL career. And at 227 pounds, he looks like he's custom-built to bulldoze his way into the end zone in short-yardage situations. Yet he lost yardage on nine rushes inside the 5-yard line and got stuffed for no gain on three others. In one forgettable game against the Bills in Week 10, he rushed seven times near the goal line for minus-four yards.
Now, analytics types (like me) know that there is almost no correlation between the size of the running back, his talent level and how well he performs near the goal line. In other words, short-yardage production is essentially random, fluctuating from year to year for even the best rushers, and speedy-skinny backs often outperform big bruisers or featured backs. For example, 5'8" Phillip Lindsay scored five touchdowns on eight carries inside the 5-yard line for the Broncos last year. So when an otherwise awesome rusher like Chubb spends a whole year going backward near the goal line, it typically has little to do with him and much more to do with a) a bad offensive line; b) bad play-calling; and c) bad luck.
Chubb suffered from all three of those factors last year, bad play-calling in particular. Browns coach Freddie Kitchens tried everything at the goal line, which was part of the problem: Chubb took short-yardage handoffs and pitches behind unbalanced lines, with tight ends playing fullback, receivers faking end-arounds, Baker Mayfield faking bootlegs and sometimes with Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. lead blocking as if they were a pair of 310-pound right tackles. The Browns themselves appeared to be more confused than the opposing defense by all the bells and whistles, so Chubb didn't stand a chance on most of his goal-line plunges.
Things should be better for Chubb now that Kevin Stefanski is installing a more conventional offense, with upgrades along the line, at tight end and at fullback. Dalvin Cook tied Ezekiel Elliott for the league lead last year, with nine touchdowns inside the 5-yard line on 15 carries yards while operating in Stefanski's Vikings offense. But remember: Goal-line statistics are almost random, so predicting an uptick in touchdowns for Chubb is much more of a guess than a guarantee.
Chubb had the worst statistics inside the 5-yard line of any 2019 running back, but he was only one high-profile member of last year's All Stuffed Club: featured running backs who gained zero yards or fewer on five or more goal-line carries. The All Stuffed Club includes a fascinating mix of rookies, superstars and future Hall of Famers.
Leonard Fournette: 8 goal-line carries for -2 yards, 3 touchdowns
Fournette is a 1970s-style superstar trapped in an era in which cloud-of-dust rushing tactics are more likely to hurt a team than help it. Fournette tied Cook for fifth in the NFL with 43 carries in the red zone last year, but he gained 58 yards on those plays. Handing off to Fournette in scoring position on 1st-and-10 was a reliable way to set up 2nd-and-9.
Fournette's goal-line rushing totals, which were bad to begin with, were deflated by one two-play sequence against the Jets in Week 8. Fournette appeared to score a one-yard touchdown when he leapt over one defender and barreled through a few others, but the referees declared that his forward progress stopped before he reached the goal line. So he swept right on the next play, couldn't find daylight, attempted a Marcus Allen-style cutback and got stuffed for a loss of seven.
Before blaming Fournette for his goal-line failures, watch this two-point conversion attempt and decide for yourself whether his effort or the play-calling/blocking is to blame.
Saquon Barkley: 7 goal-line carries for -1 yard, 1 touchdown
Barkley scored five touchdowns on 16 rushes inside the 5-yard line as a rookie in 2018; those are typical numbers for a featured rusher. But Barkley was hurt for part of last year, the Giants weren't in scoring position all that often. And with rookie Daniel Jones under center, Pat Shurmur called for Saquon up the gut on first down, crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.
Say what you will about new Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, but he doesn't overcomplicate things. Elliott led the NFL with 59 red-zone carries and 11 touchdowns last year, including nine touchdowns on 12 carries inside the 5-yard line. Goal-line production might be random, but goal-line opportunities are largely dictated by the coach or offensive coordinator. Saquon will get the chance to score some short touchdowns; whether he's as productive as Zeke or goes Full Chubb will be decided by forces mostly beyond his control.
Miles Sanders: 6 goal-line carries for -1 yards, 2 touchdowns
Saquon's college backup/replacement isn't really a big back (he's listed at 211 pounds), but he makes the All Stuffed Team because he went backward near the goal line and projects to be the Eagles' featured back this season.
An interesting note: Late-season emergency rusher Boston Scott scored four touchdowns on four carries inside the 5-yard line. Scott is just 5'6" and 203 pounds. Size really doesn't matter at the goal line.
Frank Gore: 11 goal-line carries for 0 yards, 2 touchdowns
Josh Allen cannot throw 60 yards down the field from the 1-yard line, but Bills coaches may have been worried that he would try. If they thought experience and dad strength would propel Gore to paydirt, they were wrong: Gore rushed eight times from the 1-yard line itself last year, scoring two touchdowns but getting stuffed for no gain five times (twice on third down) and once for a loss.
Allen, meanwhile, scored five touchdowns on five rushes inside the 5-yard line and eight touchdowns on 11 rushes inside the 10-yard line. He may be a more reliable goal-line rusher than most running backs.
Gore could reprise his goal-line role this year for the Jets. He'll share the backfield with Le'Veon Bell, who rushed just five times inside the 5-yard line for three touchdowns last season. Bell's totals were low because the Jets were rarely in scoring position and Adam Gase makes play-calling decisions based on who is in his personal doghouse. Before drafting Gore as a fantasy handcuff or late-round sleeper, read that last sentence again carefully.
Before closing the door on our tour of disappointing big backs, let's look at one workhorse rusher who appears to have a nose for short-yardage touchdowns. Todd Gurley scored six touchdowns on 12 carries inside the 5-yard line last year, nine touchdowns on 18 carries in 2018 and an identical nine touchdowns on 18 carries in 2017. A 50 percent success rate across three seasons of heavy use at the goal line is incredibly rare.
Despite that impressive track record, the analytics indicate that there's little reason to expect Gurley to repeat his goal-line success in Atlanta. After last season's fade, it should be no surprise that he's just another big back with the potential to break your heart.