Era-Adjusted Rushing Leaders
It’s always dangerous to infer a trend from a pattern of a couple of seasons, but, for the second consecutive season, no running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Whatever that means about the chances for an all-time great back in this year’s draft class, I think it is pretty clear that teams believe backs are less valuable relative to other positions than they perceived them to be in the years and decades before.
As teams have migrated from primary backs to collections of more specialized players, the combined production of all rushers has changed very little over the last four decades. In fact, between 1970 and 2013, rushing attempts declined by only four per team per game. Rushing yards declined by only seven yards per team per game. Excluding the strike season in 1982, rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns all remained within about 25 percent of the 2013 totals each season, adjusting for the presence of fewer teams in past seasons:
|Rushing Multipliers to Conform to 2013|
Had the total rushing production actually declined in recent seasons, I would have expected the best seasons by the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson, Priest Holmes, and Marshall Faulk in the modern era to really stand out. It turns out, that is the case, but it is not for the reason I expected.
When I did a similar exercise for quarterbacks, I was surprised to find just how many of the great quarterback seasons were from before 2000. The key to many of those exceptional quarterback seasons was rushing production. Well, the reason so many great running back seasons have taken place over the last 15 years despite the steadiness in overall production spread out over more specialized backs is receiving production:
|Best Era-Adjusted Fantasy Seasons, Running Backs, 1970-2013|
I have only listed each player’s rushing numbers and fantasy production, but the discrepancy between each player’s standard fantasy points and PPR fantasy points should clue you in. On average, the running back leaders have caught 58 passes in their top 25 seasons. And only O.J. Simpson in 1975, Terrell Davis in 1998, and Shaun Alexander in 2005 had fewer than 30 receptions in those seasons.
As passing numbers have exploded in recent years, running backs have benefited from those extra receptions and receiving yards. Only six of the top 25 era-adjusted running back seasons are from before 1997. Half of those are courtesy of Emmitt Smith. One was the 1982 season from Marcus Allen, and since that was a strike year, it was more likely to produce an exceptional per game line since there were fewer games for that line to regress to true talent numbers. Backs rarely see 300 attempts in a season any more, but when they do, they are much likelier to also pull down 50 catches. And that pushes the recent great seasons to the top of the era-adjusted fantasy leaderboard.
Backs with multiple seasons in the top 25 include Marshall Faulk with three, Emmitt Smith with three, LaDainian Tomlinson with two, Edgerrin James, Priest Holmes with two, and Holmes’ successor, Larry Johnson, with two.
Next up: receivers.
Update 5/18/14 – A bug in my original query omitted some rather notable rushing seasons, including ones from Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis, Shaun Alexander, and Edgerrin James. Thanks to commenter Shaun for pointing that out to me.
Scott Spratt was named Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He also writes for RotoGraphs and contributes to ESPN Insider as a research analyst for Baseball Info Solutions. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @PFF_ScottSpratt
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