Running backs are not important. Is it really?

nfl running back Vikings vs Cowboys match

Among people analyzing from the point of view of statistics and mathematics, the position is quite popular: "Running backs don't matter." they have supporters and opponents. We will not take sides, but try to figure out what is the meaning of this phrase.


The Best Running backs in the NFL 

Long ago, the best running backs in the NFL. Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Gayle Sayers. The list of top running backs can be continued for a long time. Until about the end of the 1970s, great endurance play was valued far above the passing.

The situation began to change in the eighties, when a number of coaches seriously considered the potential of a passing offense. One of the ideologues behind this shift in thinking was Bill Walsh. He once said: “If you gain four yards on the ground, you think you kicked the butt of the defenders. If those same four yards are passed, then the defenders think they kicked your butt. However, four yards is four yards anyway. And I don't care how my team will recruit them! "

Walsh's philosophical position is simple: yards are yards, glasses are glasses, the way you get them is unimportant. It was a challenge to the dogma of the time: "You pass to score points, but endure to win."
Walsh, who was an aspiring coach, simply had no opportunity to follow dogma. He didn't have the right set of running backs on his team, and he didn't have a quarterback for vertical play, although Joe Montana's star had already started to light up. Bill then bet on the strengths of his players and began to gain yards in an affordable way: with quick and accurate passes to receivers who honed the route to perfection. He had a tough Jerry Rice and Montana with a very fast ball release and high passing accuracy. Bill Walsh won three Super Bowls, was named coach of the year twice, created a whole philosophy of modern football and deservedly got into the Hall of Fame.

Now fast forward thirty years and see how the digital revolution has influenced the thinking of some of the new breed of coaches.

The beginnings of modern analytics began in 1971. Back then, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Virgil Carter and Northwestern University Chicago professor Robert McCaul analyzed more than 8,000 rallies in the 1969 season and introduced the concept of expected points added (EPA). Many of the concepts of analytics have their roots in the seventies, but the study of big data has only recently begun to be heavily involved.

The progress of football analytics is facilitated by technical progress. The Internet has greatly simplified the exchange of information between statisticians. Other innovations are also playing an increasing role, for example, GPS trackers that are used by the NextGen Stats system. Thanks to this, a whole generation of people has grown up who love football, but are not directly related to its inner kitchen. They analyze the game and draw conclusions, some of which seem heresy.

It was in this environment that the opinion about the uselessness or unimportance of running backs appeared. What is the idea behind this phrase?

What does the stand-up play include?

On the pitch, at a given moment, it seems very simple. The ball goes into play, the quarterback tabs, the runningback finds a pass and gains yards. Or does not find a passage and gains yards. Anyway, the guy who pulls the ball looks like the most important element of the game, right?
In the course of studying thousands of remote pranks, the analytical community has come to the conclusion that their results do not depend on the efforts of the running back, but on a number of other factors. These include the position on the field, the offensive personnel, the number of defenders in the box. 

Position on the field. This is the first thing that can be said when analyzing the rally. The ball is at a certain point on the field and this affects the appointment of a particular combination. Simplified - the farther the ball is from its end zone, the easier it is to take out. It is worth noting that the analysis of this aspect did not take into account the rallies that the offense started on the border of their scoring zone, since the coaches take into account the likelihood of safety.

In the league as a whole, run-offs against seven boxing defenders between their 10 yards and their 30 yards averaged 4.43 yards per try. The maximum average of 4.6 yards is achieved in the area between 10 and 20 yards of his own half of the field, the minimum 4.3 yards is in the area between 40 and 30 yards of the off-field. Depending on which part of the field the defense is forced to cover, the location of the players on the field and the speed of the game change. The situation changes in red zones. Defense that only needs to cover 20 yards becomes much denser. Callouts here averaged only 3.5 yards at the edge and 2 yards within 10 yards.

Staff. By and large, the defense bases its decisions on which personnel enter the field for the offensive team. Obviously, seeing three receivers, they will often use formations with a third cornerback in defense. With a clearance, the offensive task will be easier against six players in a box than against seven.

Let's take a look at the 2019 Giants and Cowboys as an example. Both teams used 11 staff as base teams. The Giants had 74% of the time and Dallas 67%. At the same time, both teams were more successful on the take-off than in the passing rallies. For example, New York giants had a 53% pass success rate and a 42% pass rate. For Dallas, the same figures were 58% and 53%, respectively. Success refers to gaining 40% of the remaining yards on the first down, 60% of yards on the second down, and 100% of yards on the third and fourth downs.

However, with such a staff, both teams played pass more often. With 11 staff on the pitch, the Giants have only 32% takeaways, Dallas 28%. With the advent of the second tight end on the field, both the Giants and cowboys played the pass more often, but its effectiveness was lower. Thus, we can conclude that by provoking the defense to use fewer players in boxing, one can achieve a greater effect than releasing an additional blocker.

defenders. Their number is partly determined by the attacking personnel entering the field. Defense is much less likely to fill a box against formations with three or four receivers than against a set of two tight ends and two runners. In addition, the role of the defender should be considered. A linebacker or cornerback occupying the same spot on the pitch will play differently.

Receiver or fullback with 12 or 21 staff is most often located close to offensive line. The defense in response places more players in the box and next to it, making it difficult for the linemen to work on the blocks. By looking at the footage of games, it is usually easy to see how successful a clearance will be, simply by the number of defenders in the box. If there are eight or more, then the attempt will almost certainly be stopped with zero result, and if there are six or less, there is a high probability of a large set of yards. George Hermsmeyer watched all of the NFL running backs played from 2009 to 2018. The results of his work are summarized in a graph showing how position on the field, distance to the end zone and the number of defenders affect the result of the rally.

Almost everywhere, teams cleared the ball better when the defense needed to cover a significant part of the field or use light formations.

Read Also: Several notable statements on the topic of NFL running back contracts

The value of running backs

Now let's move on to the question of how important the offensive play is to offensive play. Chase Stewart studied the effectiveness of passing and passing rallies that took place in the league from 1970 to 2016. He found that until 1977, the effectiveness of the passing game was higher than that of the passing. However, after making changes to the rules of the game to increase the entertainment and encourage the passing game, the offensive has lost ground. Since then, there has been a gradual increase in passing efficiency, while stem efficiency has remained roughly the same. But what about value? Analysts often discuss the value of the rallies and the players, the very "expected points".

Last season, Baltimore Ravens became the top takeaway team. This was fueled by the not-so-traditional offensive concept and skill set of quarterback Lamar Jackson. According to the PFF, Ravens' distance play earned the team 100.56 expected points for the season (0.17 EPA per draw). The second in this ranking was the Cowboys with 37.08 points per season or 0.082 EPA per draw. Only ten league teams finished the year with a positive result.

Let's compare these numbers with the passing offense. As expected, the leaders here were the Kansas City Chiefs: 247.8 points and 0.43 EPA. The Saints are second with 180.79 points and 0.31 EPA per draw.

Overall, NFL teams averaged 73.6 points by passing and -11.1 points. If Baltimore is taken out of the brackets, the result of the clearance will drop to -11.5. Thus, for each team in the league, the takeaway reduced the chance of scoring. Does this mean that the end game is useless and a relic of the past? Not.

For some teams, such as Ravens, analysts say, endurance play is of particular value and results. In addition, any team from time to time finds itself in a situation where the choice of the stem is dictated by the logic of the game.

First, a takeaway increases the likelihood of winning the end games. Unlike a pass, a clearance does not stop the clock. Also, while passing is worth more yards per game, there is always the possibility of an incomplete. If the ball is not caught, then time stops. In such situations, takeaway is an important element of control over the situation.

The other two situations are playing in red zones and gaining a small number of yards.
We have already found that it is more difficult for running backs to gain yards in close proximity to an opponent's scoring zone. However, as you get closer to it, the value of those two or three yards increases, the game gets faster. The hosts have less room to work, the quarterback needs to be more accurate and faster, and sometimes also has to take risks. The ability to play a takeaway in these situations is an advantage.

Returning to the fact that for most teams, takeaway is a decrease in the probability of scoring. There is also a caveat here. In the red zones, the top 25 running backs in the league have positive EPA within five yards, and 22 of them have positive EPA in situations where the team needed to score three yards outside the red zones.


We tried to figure out how the supporters of this or that position came to it. Every point of view has a right to exist. The fantasy football field is always the same size, the match lasts the same amount of time. Both teams can count on roughly the same number of draws. In such a situation, it is wise to make the most of your strengths. This is exactly what Bill Walsh did.

Supporters of the other position may say that a particular running back has the same significance for the outcome of the rally as the position of the ball, the staff entering the field and other factors independent of the runner. That is, it doesn't matter who the quarterback passes the ball to after the snap. Also, in general, a pass brings more expected points than a clearance. This interpretation of the phrase "Running backs are not important" is much clearer. True, you can't stick it on the bumper.
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