2012 Running Back Touchdown Reliance
In 2004, non-Jerome Bettis fantasy owners hated Jerome Bettis fantasy owners. Clearly past his prime, the stout (Fat? Can we just say fat?) Steelers running back went from being a 14th round bench guy (an RB50, if you will) to the 18th-ranked running back in fantasy football. His finish wasn’t because of spectacular play; he wasn’t running over defenders like he had done during his heyday. It was because of touchdowns. His value was, almost entirely, based on 6-point fantasy scores.
That year, ‘The Bus’ totaled 176 standard fantasy points. While he generated a moderate 3.8 yards per carry average, he still failed to gain over 1,000 all-purpose yards. His fantasy score, in short, came down to the number of times he entered the end zone. That number was 13.
If you do the math over 44% of Number 36’s fantasy points came from touchdowns.
Each week, as I recall anecdotally, fantasy owners hesitated before slotting Bettis in their lineup. The delay before clicking submit (computers existed back then) caused much anxiety, but Bettis owners, when Sunday concluded, were in ecstasy when they saw his standard 12-point stat line.
That’s probably how Michael Turner owners felt in 2012.
There was a clear divide entering this past season of fantasy football; a divide between Michael Turner believers and Michael Turner loathers. It appears as though the believers won the battle, but it didn’t come without Jerome Bettis-like anxiety.
Watching Turner in 2012, it was obvious that he had lost a step. It seemed like every time I turned on the RedZone channel, I’d see Turner not scoring. Atlanta didn’t have the best options in the world, so feeding Turner the ball in the red zone was their best bet. So they did it. Over and over and over again.
He finished with 11 touchdowns and finished as the 17th-best fantasy football running back. His yards-per-carry average was pretty dreadful, hovering around 3.6, and his 928 all-purpose yards was nothing to get excited about, either.
But he scored.
Turner’s overall reliance on touchdowns should be a red flag to the fantasy community. It’s the classic case of looking purely at cumulative numbers to reach some sort of fake football conclusion. We all know his tank is about to empty, but much of that is eye-test driven. His fantasy numbers are showing it as well.
Aside from the obvious, touchdowns are important because of the way nearly every fantasy league is set up. Remember when owners were calling Megatron a bust at the beginning of the 2012 season? It was based solely on his lack of scores. In actuality, the front half of Calvin Johnson’s 2012 campaign was comparable to his phenomenal 2011 one, minus the end zone appearances.
Touchdowns matter, but it’s a frightening statistic to fantasy owners. A player like Rob Gronkowski can make a fantasy living off of getting into the end zone, but to nearly all others, especially receivers, any sort of touchdown fluctuation can throw off the way we value a particular player.
There are three factors, to me, to look at when you analyze the impact touchdowns have on a fantasy players’ outcome. The first, obviously, is to ensure the particular player analyzed is a near every-down starter. Looking at a player like John Kuhn isn’t going to do much for you. Secondly, see if that player has scored a similar number of times previously in his career. This, in the end, is part of the reason why drafting second-year players is risky: You’ve seen an incredibly small sample. Lastly, look at the players’ surrounding cast and see if there was a significant change from previous years to the one being scrutinized. For example, BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ touchdowns dipped in 2012, but part of this was due to the fact that he left New England for a new role on the Bengals.
Below is a table displaying the top-30 running backs from 2012 sorted by their overall reliance on end zone scores. The percentage is straightforward: It’s the number of fantasy points scored by touchdowns divided by the number of total fantasy points, times one hundred.
Moving back to the Turner talk, as you can see, the Falcons running back’s 45% reliance was second in the league only to Andre Brown (who was known in 2012 as Ahmad Bradshaw’s touchdown vulture). It was also the highest percentage Turner has had since moving to Atlanta.
One incredibly interesting instance in the table is with Adrian Peterson. The best player in fantasy this season, Peterson ranked 17th in touchdown dependency, which was lower than Ray Rice, Marshawn Lynch, and even Darren Sproles. Just imagine – for a second – how unbelievable AP’s fantasy season could have been if he found the end zone more than 13 times.
Typically – similar to my conclusion with quarterback pass attempts — I look for the players on this list with a small reliance on touchdowns because they’re in the best shape for improvement entering the following season. Someone like Jamaal Charles isn’t necessarily the best example because he’s historically been a yardage-based fantasy play, but LeSean McCoy? CJ Spiller? [Gasp] Darren McFadden?
This table can help you. When you consider that Vick Ballard’s two-touchdown season left him as a top-30 running back option, doesn’t that excite you about his potential in 2013 fantasy football? Or when you see that LeSean McCoy scored just five times after a 20-touchdown season, don’t you think he may end up being undervalued because fantasy owners will simply see his moderate fantasy total in the 12 games he played this past season?
And, conversely, we can look at the table and see warning signs. Do you want to trust Mikel Leshoure after his 9 touchdowns accounted for nearly 39% of his fantasy total in 2012? Or what about Arian Foster? We’re all talking about his 400-plus carry usage, but what about the fact that his 17 touchdowns totaled over 41% of his fantasy point total?
While there are plenty of running backs who have a knack for finding the end zone, and even though some running backs are goal line-specific players, touchdown scoring is easily the most fluctuating, heavily-weighted statistic in fantasy football. And because of that, we can’t always trust it. We have to use the statistic wisely and to our advantage.
Check back next week for a similar analysis of the wide receiver position.