Running Back Manifesto

These are the facts as I know them:

1. Saquon Barkley is a phenomenally talented football player, with skills that may only be surpassed by his character and leadership.

2. Running back is not key to winning championships.

It is 2020 and we are into a new fantasy. I am not talking about Draft Kings or rotisserie. I’m talking about the resurrected belief that running the ball in the NFL is the script for winning. And if this gospel has a preacher, we can look no further than Dave Gettleman, the General Manager of the NY Giants. It is hard to believe, but the GM of this once noble franchise is still living in the 20th Century. He is an anachronism. He is a Neanderthal. The worst part is that he does not know what he does not know. He does not know that assigning greater value to Running Back in the NFL in 2020 is a destruction of value.

Before we dismantle this ‘Running Back is back’ myth, let’s begin with the quote from where it all began.

“But at the end of the day, it’s the three things you’ve had to do in 1935 that you got to do now in 2018. You got to run the ball. You got to stop the run. You got to pressure the passer.”

That was Gettleman’s quote from when he became GM of the Giants back in 2018. He chose Saquon Barkley at 1.02 overall and the rookie set the NFL afire. A funny thing happened along the way. The Giants finished 5-11 and then 4-12 the following year. Barkley is still only one player. While different from Barry Sanders in physique and style, both may end up sharing similar characteristics as electric Hall of Fame skill players without a ring… unless things change from the front office.

How can it possibly be argued that you can draft a player who can go to the Hall of Fame and it be the wrong decision? Success in the NFL is measured in championships. The Giants organization proudly displays its 4 Super Bowl titles. Winning is good. Winning seasons are better. Winning titles is best. Parcells taught us this. Either you are winning championships,  building for championships or you are failing. It does not take a rocket scientist blogger to point out that the Giants organization has been failing. Why?

Look no further than the 3 principles laid out by the new Giants GM.

RUNNING THE BALL AND STOPPING THE RUN ARE NOT 2 OF THE 3 KEYS TO WINNING IN THE NFL IN 2018 (or 2020).

This whole myth accelerated when the Neanderthal quoted another fraudulent statistic that sent the Twitter World ablaze.

“People say it’s a passing league, I get that. But you know that graphic on Sunday afternoon should not have been lost on anybody. The top four passing teams were not in the playoffs, the top four rushing teams were in the playoffs.”

Oh. My. God. It was a like a flea infestation. Anyone who loved Barkley, who loved ground and pound, who loved running, who hated analytics, “ran” with this stat.

Thankfully we got some saner heads to explain that this was a classic example of correlation, not causation. “Duh,” said Wonder, who in half a sentence dismantled the latest fantasy- “teams run more with the lead.”

JJ Zachariason did a great job of blowing up the myth about teams with the most rushing yards. Click through his Twitter thread. He compared the % ratio of Pass/Rush of winning teams in closer games (+/- 6 points) versus the % ratio in games where they were not. It clearly showed correlation but not causation.

I wouldn’t be blogging for the first time since the end of the season if I did not have more evidence on this myth about running. Thankfully, blissfully, I had another savior who came running to my aid. His name was Damien Williams. Damien Williams is the Unrestricted Free Agent Running Back who now owns a ring. Yes, 19 Running Backs were drafted back in 2014. None of them were Damien Williams. He was signed by the Dolphins as a UFA. The Dolphins let him go to Free Agency, and the Chiefs signed him. Those 19 draftees have compiled a grand total of 14 seasons as starters. Williams backed up LeSean McCoy, McCoy had injuries, Williams got more carries and the Chiefs got a title.

IT IS NOT RUNNING BACK. IT IS OFFENSIVE LINE.

Control the line of scrimmage. Protect the QB. Push the pile. Create holes for ordinary RBs. Is Williams as good as Saquon Barkley? Of course not. Williams can’t hold Barkley’s jock. Would Barkley be another enormous weapon for the Chiefs. Yes! But at WHAT COST? The Chiefs built their team with other players grabbing cap share. Mahomes was still on his rookie contract. The salary + roster bonus + proportional hit from Williams signing bonus was $1.7M this past season. This is on a veteran contract! Barkley is on a rookie contract and his cap hit (Salary in 2019) was $7.1M. That is a pretty stark comparison, that a veteran contract can be 24% of a rookie contract for the same position. That extra $5.4M dollars can be spent on other things. Each year. That is the world of a hard salary cap. You have to play that hard cap game and allocate resources to where the value is.

Speaking about spending, let’s look under the hood and see where NFL GMs spend their cap dollars. Here is a list of average annual salaries (source: Spotrac). The math is not perfect, as we take the total value of all contract at a position, divide by the number of players and the length of those contracts to get an average salary per year. Because we use the same methodology with every position, the results are precise, not accurate. Still, the table below is revealing…

    1. QB  $8.7M
    2. T     $4.0M
    3. C     $3.6M
    4. DE  $3.5M
    5. G    $3.5M
    6. DT  $3.3M
    7. WR $3.2M
    8. LB  $3.2M
    9. CB  $3.1M
    10. S    $2.6M
    11. TE $2.2M
    12. RB $2.0M

Yes, Running Back is dead last. Why? Because they are replaceable. Money talks. Running Back walks. Is Barkley worth more because his prototypical body gives him a chance at having a far longer career? Yes. But the spending patterns show that investing in RB is not critical to success in the NFL. Only 42% of plays are running plays. The NFL is a Passing league.

Another way to see success is to look at the list of Winning Super Bowl RBs.  It is a who’s not who.

41 Rhodes UFA
42 Jacobs R4
43 Parker UFA
44 Thomas UFA
45 Starks R6
46 Bradshaw R7
47 Rice R2
48 Lynch R1
49 Vereen R2
50 Anderson UFA
51 Blount R3 / White R4 /Lewis R5
52 Blount R3
53 Michel R1 rookie
54 Williams UFA

Assigning a R9 value to UFA means that the average Super Bowl Running Back over the past 14 years sported a Round 5.3 pedigree. The Brady Round 6 outlier at QB is the standard for Super Bowl Running Backs.

Someone please send this memo to Gettleman, because nearly everyone else has figured out that you do not need a superstar RB to win a title. Marshawn Lynch is the only “star” on this list, and he was traded by the Bills. Sony Michel was taken 1.32 at the very end of the first round and helped the Patriots as a rookie. So the evidence is very clear that RB is merely a cog in the engine. Allocate outsized salary resources at RB from your cap total at your expense. WORSE, allocate outsized DRAFT resources at RB from your draft capital at grave expense. Barkley became the 4th highest RB from the moment he was selected, burning the value of the cheap rookie contract, which pretty much exists for almost every position except RB and TE in Round 1.

Another thing that is striking about that list of Super Bowl champion running backs is that it is a turnstile. There is only one player on the entire list who shows up twice, LaGarrette Blount. And it is not because he is good. It is because he is good  value . In 2016 with the Patriots, he was signed for ~$1M and got $0.5M in incentives for a grand total of $1.5M. In 2017, with the Eagles, he took up $1.25M in cap space. So Blount did not cost the Patriots or Eagles much in cap allocation and he also cost them zero in Draft capital.

Career length/injuries is another issue. Tiki Barber pointed out that for a RB, each game in the NFL was the equivalent of going through a car crash. The toll it takes on bodies is very high. As a position, RBs have the second lowest career length.

So let’s summarize the low positional value of RB:

  • Only 42% of plays from scrimmage are running plays
  • RBs get hurt more than other positions
  • Their careers are shorter due to injury
  • RBs are replaceable
  • RBs have the lowest salary of all starting positions on Offense & Defense
  • The Super Bowl blueprint shows only 1 pedigree’d RB winning in the last 14 years
  • Teams that are running the ball more are doing so because they have the lead in games, not because they took the lead by running the ball

A steady change on rules/enforcement making passing easier has diminished the value of running the ball. We are not advocating abandoning the run altogether. There has to be some balance. Running backs also need to pass block and run pass routes. And yes, in the North/East, you do need to run the ball in inclement weather in December and January. Yet the Giants GM is fooled by a statistic saying that the teams with the best running games were in the playoffs while the 4 best passing Offenses were not. The answer is to build a strong Offensive Line, which leverages both pass and run while protecting the Franchise- its Quarterback.

I love Saquon Barkley. He is a class act and he can make a difference on the field. (Remember, he was the #1 rated prospect by Wonder on his 2018 Draft Board.) Barkley can catch passes out of the backfield, which is critical in today’s NFL. He is a luxury that Gettleman could not afford when given the task of rebuilding the franchise. The Giants did not have an Offensive Line in 2018. Now that Barkley is on the team you have to leverage him. From the moment he was picked, yes that evening, we pounded the table to draft OL. Since then, Gettleman has selected Hernandez in Round 2 (very good, although disappointed in his 2nd season) and R7 Asafo-Adjei (Injured Reserve, 0 games). That is CLEARLY NOT ENOUGH. It is 2020 and the Giants still do not have an Offensive Line. Trade down, draft OL in Round 1, and draft OL in a later round. Rebuild.