Election season is upon us, a time for endless debates, campaign slogans, and Jon Stewart. Gaudy promises abound as office-seekers curry favor with the masses. Whether a politician is pledging to have a golden toilet seat in every home or free lunches every Tuesday, they all tend to over-promise and under-deliver. In that same vein, many of us are sucked into the hope or hype of a Mike Shanahan or Bill Belichick running back at the dawn of the annual draft season. After all, one of the golden rules of fantasy football is “Never Draft a Mike Shanahan or Bill Belichick Running Back.” How much merit does this running gag have, though?
Whether you have drafted Tim Hightower, Clinton Portis, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, or any other Redskins or Patriots running back in recent years, you know firsthand about fantasy frustration that Shanahan and Belichick bring into your lives. The maddening inconsistency with which their running backs have scored fantasy points has ruined countless fantasy owners who foolheartedly depended on one of them. Owners are right to be wary of drafting a back from New England or Washington, but to what extent? Let us look at each coach and see how far down the rabbit hole I can go. For the purposes of this article, I will define Belichickery or Shanahanigans as “any running back with less than 200 standard-scoring fantasy points mostly due to the whimsy of his coach.”
Take a look at this list of top-scoring fantasy running backs throughout Belichick’s head coaching career:
As you can see, Belichickery has been around for longer than you think. I was not conscientious enough of the goings-on around the NFL back in Kevin Mack’s days — other than knowing Dan Marino was awesome — so I cannot directly speak to the caprice of Coach Belichick back then. At the very least, it is statistically evident much the same way as the Law Firm’s 2011 season. His running backs in Cleveland shared the ball just as much as his Patriots, all with low fantasy totals as a result. Aside from Corey Dillon’s brief run as the feature back in New England, all of Belichick’s backfields have been nebulous timeshares of varying degree. Leroy Hoard and Kevin Mack may as well have been BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead in 1991, and Eric Metcalf muddled things up even more soon after that.
The staggering fact of the matter is that just two running backs have cracked 200 standard points for Bill Belichick in his 17 seasons at the helm of a NFL team. In Belichick’s defense, his philosophy on running backs is an overriding factor. The Patriots have adapted Moneyball to the NFL, and one of its tenets is that running backs are “overrated.” Why would they fix something that is not broken? That offense is a record-breaking threat every year without a go-to running back. Of course, it helps when you have a quarterback like Mr. Gisele Bündchen, but what do you make of Belichick’s antics when Bernie Kosar, Mike Tomczak, and Vinny Testaverde were quarterbacking his team?
Sadly, the Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen have set the trap bait this offseason. They both offer a youthful upside that Green-Ellis simply does not, and the fact the Law Firm may take his legal advice elsewhere makes it all the more enticing to draft one of the two sophomore backs. Therein lies the root of the problem: there is already a competition in the backfield without mentioning Woodhead or Kevin Faulk, though the latter may retire. More to the point, Belichick has no qualms about giving his running backs erratic playing time. Consider these RB snap counts from a stretch of games in 2011:
|Player||Week 6||Week 8||Week 9||Week 10||Week 11||Week 12||Week 13||Week 14|
While that is a relatively small sample size relative to a 17-year head coaching career, it is a microcosm of Belichick’s capriciousness at that position. The matchups, injuries, and game situations dictate what he does at running back, which makes predicting who will score how many points difficult on a game-to-game basis, let alone year-to-year. I understand that Faulk is a savvy veteran, but it stretches the limit of credulity that he would start three games in 2011, though injuries were involved. The quagmire in the Patriots backfield has been there for years, and is not likely to clear up any time soon. Of course, Tom Brady cannot possibly stick around forever, and the Patriots might find another Corey Dillon, but I would not bank on any of those happening in the near future.
Here is that running back list for Shanahan:
Back when fantasy football was likely just a gleam in your eye, a man named Terrell Davis romped through the NFL, helping John Elway finally get over the Super Bowl hump twice. Sadly, injuries cut his career short before fantasy football really took off on a grand scale, so the vast majority of us never got to experience his 381-point 1998 season. Looking closer at the rest of the crew, though, you will notice that Shanahanigans did not really start until the mid-aughts, when the Broncos shipped Portis to the Redskins for Champ Bailey. When guys like Reuben Droughns, Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell, and Selvin Young are leading your team in rushing, there may be a problem.
Looking back at Shanahan’s running backs brightened my view on Shanahan as a mercurial coach — yes, he has messed with us all when discussing who might start at the position in recent years, but that is because he has had to deal with scraps. It is plainly evident that Shanahan utilizes his starting running back to maximum potential when that running back is actually, you know, good. Even when the running back is not Davis- or Portis-caliber, Shanahan has shown an obstinacy to stick with one guy if he performs. How else can you explain Mike Anderson’s 1,000-yard seasons? Well, aside from having good offensive lines all those years, those running backs had to be on the field a great deal.
Where Vereen and Ridley have to deal with each other and the maniacal division of playing time in New England, Helu’s situation is far clearer. For one, Tim Hightower is a free agent. Hopefully the Redskins realize he is not very good and let him walk. That leaves Evan Royster as Helu’s main competition at running back. Royster did have a couple of good games when Helu’s toe was bothering him at the end of the season, so his presence on the depth chart is not to be dismissed. Where Shanahanigans diverges from Belichickery the most is it is more of a year-to-year unpredictability, though the past couple of seasons have seen Shanahan pull more and more Belichikesque shenanigary from game to game.
There are a few positive indicators for Roy Helu going into the 2012 offseason, though. First, and most importantly, Helu played 86.8% of all offensive snaps in games where he started. To put that number into perspective, LeSean McCoy led all running backs last season by playing 81.2% of his team’s offensive snaps. Now, it is unreasonable to believe Helu will get on the field that much, but it shows Shanahan kept his faith in Helu when he was anointed to be the starter, even after fumbles. You may recall that being starter means little when it comes to overall playing time in a game under Belichick.
Helping Helu is that he seems to be a good pass blocker — he is 7th in the league with a 98.1 pass blocking efficiency among running backs according to our signature stats. It is also worth mentioning that Royster’s pass blocking efficiency was a perfect 100.0 last season, but his sample size was so small that the number is unreliable.
At any rate, here are Roy Helu’s statistics prorated over 16 games using his averages from the five games he started:
His reception numbers are a bit skewed by his historic 14-catch game when John “Dumpoff” Beck was the quarterback. Nonetheless, even with fewer catch totals these numbers would make for an impressive rookie season for the former Cornhusker.
The bottom line here is that Mike’s history tells me Shanahanigans might be more myth than legend, while Belichickery is alive and well. Over the short term, if it has not become plainly evident, I would throw my lot in with Roy Helu over the likes of Shane Vereen or Stevan Ridley. While Helu will cost you a much higher draft pick, he also represents a much safer option. All your choices will have risk built into their cost, so Helu will still come cheap relative to his potential. Of course, should the Redskins draft or sign another running back then all bets are off once again.